Willamette faculty and staff have been working hard to ensure that plans are in place to return to on-campus life and classes as quickly and safely as possible. As we think about the process of returning to in-person instruction, we must think first, of course, of the health and safety of those who are part of the Willamette community. The same task force that guided our move to distance education this spring and that developed the protocols that have allowed us to continue to house and feed our remaining resident student population is now turning its attention to questions of how to reopen Willamette safely. As testing becomes easier and more available, we are now talking about how we work with our local health department to develop testing and tracing protocols for our campus and how to manage class sizes and room assignments to enhance social distancing. We are also thinking about ways to modify schedules to reduce crowding in the dining halls and talk about where enhanced cleaning efforts be focused.

We are not alone in this work. In addition to advice from local and state public health departments, Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission has convened groups of university leaders, including me, to develop recommendations for a common approach to some of these questions. Barring any surprises, it seems very likely that Oregon's ban on in-person instruction will be lifted by mid-summer, and that all or most Willamette classes will be easily within the guidelines for maximum group size.

This pandemic will be with us in some form at least until an effective vaccine can be developed, but we need not be stuck in this limbo of total social isolation until then if we combine testing with thoughtful public health measures. As an example of what is possible, here in Oregon, medical facilities will soon reopen: my orthopedist brother will begin performing elective joint replacement surgeries again next week. It will be critical to a generation of students at both the K-12 and university levels that the reopening of schools and colleges is not far behind.

I don't know about you, Bearcats, but I can't wait to be on campus and see everyone again this fall. Everything may not be back to normal. I suspect at least some travel and study abroad programs will still be restricted and the NCAA has not yet decided on possible alterations to sports schedules or competitions. I also doubt that I will shake hands with the incoming Class of 2024 at Matriculation this year as I normally do—it's going to be fist or elbow bumps for the foreseeable future. But it will feel good to return to doing what we do best, together.

There are no certainties in life. On the off chance that the state tells us that we have to start in-person instruction in September instead of August, or if we have to otherwise change our approach, then we will, of course, let you know of any modified plans. But however well our community responded to the mid-semester changes this spring, all of us—students, staff, and faculty—are at Willamette because we believe in the power of academic community and personal engagement. And every one of us will be working in the months ahead to restore those traditional Willamette attributes as quickly and safely as we can.

This Friday, it will have been exactly four months since the first reports were received by the World Health Organization of a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. In that time, the world has utterly changed, in ways that have felt out of control. On Friday, it will also be exactly four months until the scheduled first day of classes in Willamette's 2020-21 academic year. It is on all of us to use these months well so Willamette is ready to do what it has always done best: prepare students for achievement and service to a world that needs us now more than ever.


President Stephen E. Thorsett
Willamette University

Alumni and Parent Engagement

900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.
503-375-5304 voice
503-370-6830 fax

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