Willamette University's Salem campus (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Willamette University will move many of its classes online for the first two weeks of spring semester in hopes of limiting the spread of the Omicron variant once students return from winter break.

The university’s Covid advisory team announced plans Friday evening, following a state news conference where health officials announced a massive push to administer booster Covid vaccines. Health officials warned new modeling shows the more transmissible variant will quickly become dominant in Oregon and lead to 3,000 Oregonians hospitalized with Covid by early February - more than double the peak during the Delta surge in late summer.

Steve Thorsett, Willamette University president, said university leaders had discussed modifying the start of spring semester for several days before the state announcement.

“People should be planning to be flexible as we learn more about Omicron in the next couple of weeks in case the state or the federal guidance changes,” Thorsett said. “It was really mostly about signaling flexibility.”

He said Willamette made similar changes as students returned in person in the fall of 2020 before vaccines were widely available.

“We wouldn’t be doing it this year if it weren’t for the level of uncertainty everyone has of where we’ll be with Omicron,” he said.

The two-week “quiet period” for Salem students will begin Jan. 10 when students return from winter break. The university’s larger classes will be held online. Thorsett said that includes most law school classes, as well as larger lecture halls for undergraduates.

Students will be encouraged to limit in-person interactions, the email said.

Lab, studio and field-based classes will continue in person, as will university sports, Thorsett said.

Thorsett said Willamette is well positioned to contain the spread of the virus on campus, but university leaders want to monitor students after they return from winter break travels to “make sure we don’t have a big lurking pool of coronavirus on campus.”

“We’re pretty confident that we can manage through monitoring and testing,” he said. Willamette has recorded a total of 50 Covid cases among students and staff on its Salem campus and five on its Portland campus since Aug. 1. That’s among about 2,200 students and 700 employees.

The two-week period also allows more time for students and employees to get booster shots, something health officials say is key to preventing infection with Omicron.

Starting in the fall, Willamette required vaccination against Covid for both students and employees. Medical and religious exemptions are available, but Thorsett said the campus vaccination rate is high - about 97% in Salem and 99% in Portland.

Thorsett said currently the university doesn’t plan to require booster shots before the fall of 2022. Some other universities, including Duke, have announced plans to require boosters before students return from winter break or during spring semester.

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

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