Jillian St. John and her parents sat in traffic near Reser Stadium for about three hours on Sunday, bumper-to-bumper with other families waiting to move into the dorms at Oregon State University. St. John said the time in the car helped her decompress and process what the upcoming fall term might be like — from the normal nervousness of moving away from home for the first time to the unique jitters of doing so during a pandemic.
“We’re all wearing masks and stuff, [and] it’ll be nice to see people and be in a classroom — it’s a lot more engaging than online school,” St. John said.
Like many high school seniors this year, St. John spent the majority of her time learning remotely, and Oregon’s public universities are hoping to give students a sense of normalcy this fall. That includes welcoming thousands of students into campus residence halls across the state.
Some of Oregon’s public universities started their move-ins last weekend, others won’t start until this week.
The University of Oregon is not currently releasing any student housing or enrollment numbers, but UO President Michael Schill said in a board meeting this week that the university is hopeful “that we will have our largest, our most diverse, and our best academically prepared class ever.”
Portland State University is seeing roughly double the number of students moving onto campus this fall compared to last year: just more than 1,700 compared to roughly 800. PSU’s numbers for fall 2021 more closely resemble the pre-pandemic fall two years ago, than the largely online school year that started a year ago.
OSU is seeing the same trend.
“We have over 4,600 students that are moving in this week to on-campus housing,” Brian Stroup, OSU’s director of operations and facilities for the university housing and dining services, said on Sunday.
OSU said the number of students living on-campus this fall is similar to pre-pandemic levels, with roughly 3,000 students moving in on Sunday.
“We have probably twice as many students that are here on campus this year,” Stroup said. “But, we also have a vaccine and a vaccine requirement, as well as over 90% of the students living on-campus, are fully vaccinated.”
All of Oregon’s public universities have COVID-19 vaccination mandates — which require either full vaccination or a valid exemption. At OSU, all students must get tested for COVID-19, regardless of their vaccination status, as part of the move-in process. Both OSU and the UO are also requiring unvaccinated students and staff to take weekly COVID-19 tests.
Still, some students and parents are anxious about what a return to campus could look like as the coronavirus continues to spread.
‘We’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic’
“I’m excited,” incoming OSU freshman St. John said, as she stood in line to get her COVID-19 test before move-in. “I was a little bit less excited when I realized that people can be unvaccinated without medical exemptions, which is kind of a bummer.”
Under Oregon law, people can claim non-medical exemptions from vaccination in some cases, such as for religious or philosophical reasons. OSU has said that on-campus students and staff who are unvaccinated and have not claimed an exemption may face consequences.
St. John will be living with two roommates and sharing a bathroom with a neighboring two-person room. She said one of her suitemates in the neighboring room disclosed that she is not vaccinated.
St. John’s mom, Laura St. John, said she’s relieved that the suitemate at least disclosed that information.
“It’s great that she told us, so you can decide to do masks, and we got an air filter for her room,” Laura said. But, she still has worries.
“The whole non-medical exemption on vaccines, I’m not a fan of … given what’s going on and kind of what’s at risk,” she said.
OPB asked parents and students in a survey last week about their feelings surrounding the return to campus. Chase Davenport, who will be living in the dorms at Portland State, cited “an outbreak of COVID on campus” as the biggest worry about on-campus living.
“The choice to go back to in-person teaching is interesting to me,” Davenport said. “On one hand, reportedly over 90% of students attending PSU next term are vaccinated, but we’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic.”
OSU, UO and PSU — which disclose their vaccination rates online — are all reporting more than 90% vaccination rates for the students and employees who have submitted their vaccination information. But, hundreds of students and staff still have not attested their vaccination status to the schools.
A delay to in-person learning in Southern Oregon
Southern Oregon University began its main move-in late last week, but the school is delaying the start of in-person classes due to especially high COVID-19 transmission rates in that part of the state.
In its survey, OPB received some responses from students and parents at the university in Ashland.
Charlie Zimmermann is attending Southern Oregon University this fall and has a lot of worries about living in a residence hall.
“I’m worried I’ll end up missing out on things if I somehow get exposed or catch [COVID-19],” Zimmermann said. “It’s also going to be hard to deal with some of the measures, like having to wear masks at all times, even outdoors, unless you’re in your dorm room. It’s really hard to be wearing masks that much.”
SOU President Linda Schott said late last month that the university would return to predominantly in-person classes on Oct. 11, or soon after. Zimmermann said they’re concerned that remote learning could last even longer depending on how the pandemic proceeds.
“I’m really excited to finally get back to some semblance of real school, after spending the last year and a half online,” Zimmermann said.
Zimmermann’s mother, Seona Zimmermann, also responded to OPB’s survey and said she’s sensing a lot of anxiety around the initial start of school for Zimmermann.
“They are anxious because the last time they were given a three-week delay, it turned into 18 months and the loss of their senior year,” Seona said. “Instead of being an exciting time of new beginnings, it is now an anxiety-provoking situation of many unknowns and the fear of the new variant, the delay of in-person classes being extended and being in the dorms with very little social interaction.”
Seona hopes the delay to in-person learning at SOU is brief and is excited for Zimmermann either way.
“I am hoping they make new friends and broaden their horizons,” Seona said. “Like any parent, I want my child to thrive and grow during this transition to adulthood.”
Losing a whole year
Zoë Diskin moved into her OSU dorm room on Monday — with the help of her mom, dad, boyfriend and younger sister. Diskin is from the Portland area, and like many other students across Oregon, she also spent her last year of high school learning remotely.
“I feel like I kind of missed a lot my senior year, and so it makes me sad,” Diskin said. “I’m just hoping that it goes smoothly and that we don’t have to shut everything down.”
Diskin said she has the normal worries about starting campus: moving away from home and figuring out a new campus and city, but the pandemic also brings along some extra things to consider.
“There’s parts of me that are kind of nervous about [COVID-19], because there’s like a lot of people on campus, and a lot of people I don’t know,” Diskin said. “But, I feel a little better that the vaccination rates are really high and vaccines are required.”
She said one thing that makes her feel better is that if she gets sick, she won’t get her family sick.
Diskin’s mom, Susan Diskin, works for a Portland healthcare system in infection prevention, so she says she’s evaluating “everything all the time.”
“I’ve been pretty impressed,” Susan said. “The vaccine requirement is definitely a big deal to me, and I know the amount of work that takes to put something like that in place and to have testing procedures for every one of the students, so I’m glad that they have all of those things. If it weren’t that way, I would feel very differently about this whole situation.”
Susan said COVID-19 is “definitely top of the list” of her worries, but she’s happy that her daughter will be able to socialize more and get back into the classroom after high school. And to get back to a sense of what the transition from high school to college has felt like in the past.
“I’m excited for that part, because [senior year] is definitely a loss,” Susan said. “Senior year was all at home for her, and though she stayed tight with her boyfriend and her friends, missing prom and all those milestones definitely has an effect.”
As Zoë starts as a freshman at OSU, her younger sister is starting her freshman year of high school. Their dad Todd said having the two daughters both starting new chapters has opened his eyes to the complicated challenges facing students and educators during the pandemic.
“They’re having to balance the emotional wellbeing — being in school and in class with one another — and the learning that happens that way, to an online presence where maybe it’s better for their health,” Todd said of educators. “I’m grateful that Oregon State’s been doing what they can to help facilitate that in the best way possible … We’re just happy [Diskin] gets to take on this next step for herself, and she’s ready to go.”