Willamette University moves all classes online over COVID-19 concerns

The Willamette University campus in Salem (Courtesy/Willamette University)

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Willamette University is moving all classes online starting Monday, March 16, to limit in-person interactions and prevent the spread of COVID-19, President Steve Thorsett announced Thursday.

The move will affect the university’s 1,600 undergraduate students, many of whom live on campus, as well as about 640 graduate students at the schools of business and law. It’s in effect through April 13 but could be extended if the situations changes.

Willamette has had no reported cases of COVID-19, and no one on campus is known to be exposed to another case.

In an email to students and faculty, Thorsett said the decision was made so the college can practice the “social distancing” practices being encouraged by state and local health authorities. While the Oregon Health Authority is not currently recommending preemptive closures of schools or colleges, he said Willamette will now be prepared if that changes.

The university also wants to provide access to coursework for students who have health concerns who may be more vulnerable to serious illness from the novel coronavirus.

“Serious cases occur in all age groups, and especially for older adults and those with underlying health conditions, it can be devastating. Each of us has a responsibility to do all we can to limit and slow its spread,” Thorsett wrote.

Willamette’s campus will remain open and students can continue living in dorms, eating at dining halls and using the university health center.

The transition to online classes mirrors steps Oregon’s major public universities have announced in recent days.

Students can leave campus and remain enrolled in classes, and Willamette will work to ensure they can still access advising and other services remotely, Thorsett said.

Athletic events will continue, Thorsett said, but only athletes, coaches and others needed for games to run will be allowed in. No spectators will be admitted. Practices and competitions will continue, he said, but students may choose not to participate.

Following an executive order from Gov. Kate Brown banning public gatherings of more than 250 people, university officials have canceled Willamette’s annual Social Powwow, put on by the Native and Indigenous Student Union. It was scheduled for Saturday.

Sessions at the Institute for Continued Learning, a community program for retirees, have been suspended. The group has about 160 members who meet for classroom sessions on campus.

Students currently studying abroad in Europe are being recalled following a Wednesday order from President Donald Trump to temporarily ban entry to the U.S. for most European nationals. U.S. citizens in Europe will be allowed to return after receiving a health screening at a U.S. airport.

A university spokeswoman couldn’t immediately say how many students the recall will impact.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.