Two people walk through Willamette University on May 15. 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As Salem six-year-olds prepare to learn to read over Zoom, more than one thousand local college students will be back inside classrooms and dorms this fall. 

Willamette and Corban, both small private universities, are planning for in-person classes with modified schedules, fewer students per room and Covid testing available for students on campus. University administrators at both schools said their decisions have been driven by student demand and educational need, though neither is requiring students to attend courses in person or be on campus. 

Campus life will look different, with traditional events cancelled, fewer students in dorms, meal times staggered and, at least officially, no parties. 

Undergraduate classes at both universities begin Aug. 24. 

Both universities are working under guidelines from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, released in July, which require at least 35 square feet of classroom space per student and 64 square feet of space per resident in dorms or campus housing.

The guidelines also require students and faculty to wear masks or face coverings in many settings, and say universities must have space to isolate sick students known or suspected to have Covid. 

Neither university's plan includes testing students with no symptoms of illness prior to arrival on campus, a step the University of Oregon is requiring for students living in dorms. Willamette's plan notes health authorities currently don't recommend widespread testing of people without symptoms of illness because testing supplies remain limited.

Brandy Raigan, Corban’s student health coordinator, said she expects the university will see some cases of Covid on campus, but can avoid outbreaks if students follow rules on hand hygiene, distancing and avoiding large gatherings. 

“If students follow them I’m not concerned about a major outbreak. I do think we will have positive cases,” she said. 

Corban administrators said they’ll emphasize the guidelines during the first weeks of school, using student government leaders to set an example. Students will be required to wear masks in public places. 

Other local colleges are taking a different approach. Chemeketa Community College will remain almost entirely online. Courses with hands-on components that can’t be taught remotely can meet in-person, college spokeswoman Marie Hulett said, but even those courses will limit in-person sessions to activities like labs and practicums that can’t be done remotely. The college is still finalizing a list, but Hulett said most classes with some in-person instruction are in career technical programs like nursing, fire science and welding. 

Western Oregon University’s new Salem campus, opening this fall, will hold all classes for its Masters in Organizational Leadership program online, spokeswoman Lisa Catto said. That program is the main offering for the Salem facility. Other Salem courses will be hybrid with one in-person session per week, but students with concerns about attending can request accommodation, Catto said. 

As private universities, Willamette and Corban must follow state health guidelines, but aren’t required to submit their plans to local public health agencies for review, though administrators at both universities said they’ve consulted with the health department while preparing to reopen. 

At Corban, which has about 1,100 students on its south Salem campus, classes will be hybrid by default. 

Provost Tom Cornman, who’s teaching a Western Civilization course, said half of his 40 students will sit in a classroom on Tuesdays while the other half participate in the class live over Zoom. On Thursdays, the groups will switch. Students who don’t want to attend any classes in person can participate in both sessions remotely. 

He said the format allows students to ask questions or discuss issues in real time, rather than fully online courses which are often more self-directed. 

“We’re trying to be responsive to our constituents,” he said. The university has polled returning and incoming students and found a majority want to attend class in person. 

“For every student that has said, ‘Gee I’m not that sure I want to come back to campus,’ we’re having more than one student saying, ‘Gee I can’t wait to come back to campus,’” Cornman said. Some have indicated an interest in attending Corban specifically because they’re offering in-person courses, he said. 

Willamette, too, is giving students the option to attend classes remotely, whether they live on campus or remain at home. But the university will hold most classes in person. 

“Higher education, even residential higher education, is not nearly as complex as K-12, with its much higher student densities, much more daily mixing with off campus families, much less ability to set and enforce behavioral standards, and oftentimes less money to retrofit and clean facilities,” Willamette spokesman Tim Cobb said in an email. 

Sarah Comstock, a professor of biology at Corban, has worked with Santiam Hospital to repurpose equipment from her lab for coronavirus tests. She said the college will have a Santiam clinic on campus with round-the-clock telemedicine available for students with health concerns. They’ll be able to process about 90 tests per day in-house, she said, with a turnaround time of a day or two. 

Comstock said she began working with Santiam in the spring when local testing supplies were limited, foreseeing a need to have testing available on campus when students returned. 

Willamette’s Bishop Health Center has contracted with Quest Labs to process tests, Cobb said. The company has reported delays processing tests as demand has grown across the U.S., with turnaround times of a week or more. Cobb said Willamette is pursuing other options and will require students or faculty with pending tests to quarantine until results come back. 

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