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Linfield University to resume in-person classes following recently reported COVID-19 cases

Linfield University’s McMinnville campus plans to resume in-person classes Wednesday — less than a week after a number of coronavirus cases were reported on campus. Some students and faculty are concerned, though, about a quick return to face-to-face learning after the campus outbreak, with some saying they won’t attend in-person classes.

The private university last Friday announced it was issuing a “pause” on all in-person activities following 11 positive COVID-19 tests in students, faculty and staff members at the McMinnville campus.

At that time, university officials asked all students in its Hewitt residence hall to quarantine in place, and said in an online news post Tuesday that the cluster of cases was mostly confined to that single hall. The post emphasized that the case numbers remained small.

“When it became apparent Friday morning that a small group of cases were from a single residence hall, Linfield contacted public health officials, who recommended testing all residents and instituting a quarantine of the hall,” Linfield’s Associate Vice President, Scott Nelson, said in a statement. “Only one of those cases was new on Friday, however. Most had been in quarantine or isolation days earlier. Out of an abundance of caution, Linfield’s COVID response team and leadership decided to reduce the risk of transmission further by pausing in-person classes and work for four days.”

Nelson said Linfield moved all positive cases into the university’s designated isolation housing. It also contact-traced and asked all close contacts to quarantine.

“The students remaining in the residence hall are not considered to have had a ‘known contact with a positive,’ but we decided to take pre-emptive action anyway to see if any cases might develop. So far, none have.”

Residents in Hewitt Hall remain in quarantine, though all had COVID-19 tests come back negative last Friday. Nelson said the students will be tested again this Friday.

In the meantime, he said, those students, as well as others in isolation housing will be provided with remote learning opportunities instead of going back to in-person classes Wednesday.

The university’s steps are not reassuring some members of the Linfield community, however.

Out of a group of students and faculty members OPB spoke with Tuesday evening, most said they would not return to campus as requested on Wednesday.

“Just thinking about the massive amounts of people who are dying from COVID — is there any amount of risk acceptable? You’re gambling with human lives,” Esmae Shepard, a freshman at Linfield said. “Linfield is not taking it seriously enough. They’re gambling with our lives, and I don’t find that acceptable.”

Other students, who preferred not to be named, said they know of students who regularly travel off campus and return without getting tested beforehand. And they said some students have switched roommates in residence halls.

Students say they are receiving information about positive COVID-19 cases at Linfield from word of mouth or social media before they hear it from the university.

In OPB’s discussion with students, it was suggested that all on-campus students be tested before returning to in-person classes Wednesday, rather than just students in the residence hall identified by university and public health officials.

According to its website, Linfield asked all students before the beginning of this term to be tested before classes started. It also tests all students living in residence halls at the start of the term, and it “spot tests” specific groups of students, like some student-athletes, throughout the term.

Faculty say that’s not the case for others on campus.

“We’ve never been tested — faculty, staff, administrators,” Dr. Nancy Broshot, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies, said. Broshot said she will be teaching all of her labs over Zoom this week.

Jeff Peterson is an associate professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department, specifically in wine studies. He said he has been teaching remotely since the beginning of the pandemic, but only because he has a pre-existing condition.

Peterson lives with his 80-year-old mother, who has four pre-existing conditions, but he said he would not have been able to opt-out of teaching in-person by choice, if not for his own condition.

“I can name at least five colleagues who have spouses or household members with pre-existing conditions who have been told they need to be in the classroom,” Peterson said.

“The faculty, all together, in one voice — we are very frustrated, and we are rather scared,” Anton Belov, associate professor of music, said.

Other professors also said they don’t feel safe returning to in-person teaching.

“If they’re forcing us back at a very dangerous time, when we’ve had an outbreak … In no way, shape or form I as a faculty member feel safe being in that space,” said Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, a professor in the Department of English and Co-coordinator of Gender Studies. “And if I don’t feel safe, and I talk like a parent here, I’m not going to put my child in a space where I don’t feel safe. I cannot put any of my students in that space where they’re not feeling safe.”

Tanya Tompkins, a psychology professor, said she surveyed her students, and the majority said they would prefer if classes continued remotely in the near future, which she said she will do.

“I see us as a learning community, and none of us can learn or teach if we feel threatened or unsafe,” Tompkins said.

Both students and faculty said they want more transparency from Linfield, and signs that administrators are taking their concerns into consideration.

“It’s not an easy job, and I don’t envy them,” Tompkins said of university officials making decisions related to COVID-19. “But, it’s made more challenging, seeing students and faculty as adversaries, or as people who can’t be trusted with information. … I feel like we’re not listened to.”

With the return for many to in-person learning Wednesday, the university is urging the campus community to continue adhering to public health recommendations.

“Community members are still encouraged to wear masks, socially distance, practice extreme caution, follow all health guidelines inside the classroom and out, and wash their hands regularly with soap and water,” the university said in a statement on its website Tuesday. “Non-academic, in-person activities and meetings are still restricted while Yamhill County remains in the ‘Extreme Risk’ category.”

Since notifying Yamhill County Public Health Friday about the reported cases, Nelson said Linfield has been working closely with that agency and the Oregon Health Authority.

“[N]one of these outside authorities mandated or even recommended the full campus pause of in-person activities,” Nelson said.

The university, which also has a nursing school campus in Portland, had been conducting a mix of in-person and hybrid classes, as well as a few online classes, this semester.

It has reported 23 COVID-19 cases associated with the campus community since Jan. 1, according to Linfield’s coronavirus data.

The university’s McMinnville campus has seen a total of 41 cumulative cases since last July. The Portland campus had five cases in that same time period.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell