After a very difficult winter, the recent news of declining COVID-19 cases nationwide is certainly welcome. While we are by no means out of the woods, Oregon and Marion County have both returned to the levels of community prevalence last seen in the fall, and vaccination of our most vulnerable groups seems to be leading to material improvements in hospitalization rates and deaths. Earlier today, the state transitioned Marion County from the “Extreme Risk” to the “High Risk” category which means we will start to see some changes to the restrictions that have been in place since the beginning of the academic year. The emergence of new strains of the coronavirus make it difficult to predict for sure how the next stage of this pandemic will play out, but I am optimistic that as vaccinations continue and the Oregon Health Authority continues to reassess county risk levels in the coming weeks and months, the state will begin to transition towards a slow and gradual relaxation of the strictest activity limits.
At Willamette, we will continue to take a cautious approach that will always meet and may often exceed state requirements. Our goal since the beginning of the pandemic has been to reduce as much as possible the risk of spread of the virus while preserving as much as possible the quality of our educational programs and our support of students’ overall physical and mental health and well-being. As public health guidance and state regulations change, and as we gain experience with our own management of the pandemic, the Reopening Operations Committee will continue to assess and, when appropriate, change Willamette's approach.
One recent set of changes concerns intercollegiate athletics. Working with state government leaders in Oregon and Washington, the Northwest Conference (NWC), of which Willamette is a member, met throughout the fall to identify a structured path toward limited athletic competition. In December, the President’s Council of the NWC voted to approve the resumption of competition and championships as long as they comply with all federal, state, local and NCAA guidance, and, in consultation with the ROC, I have concurred with this decision.
All schools in the NWC, including Willamette, have adopted and agreed to adhere to specific return-to-play protocols, which include regular testing of student athletes, coaches, staff, and officials during training and prior to competition, contact tracing, and well-defined isolation and quarantine procedures. The testing protocols designed by the Northwest conference are consistent with NCAA guidelines for intermediate-risk sports (i.e., soccer, lacrosse, baseball, softball, volleyball with masks) and exceed NCAA guidance for low-risk sports (i.e., golf, track and field, tennis, and swimming). This guidance addresses the expectations of players, staff, and coaches on the sideline by noting that, “Everyone on the sideline must wear a face covering that includes all student-athletes not actively participating in the contest, coaches, staff, game personnel, and officials.” Except in volleyball, NCAA guidance does not require athletes in low- or intermediate-risk sports to wear masks while actively competing. (Contact sports, including basketball and football, remain at this time further restricted by additional state rules in Oregon, although NWC teams in Washington state are competing under different protocols.)
As Willamette athletes return to play this spring under these strict guidelines, we will continue to closely monitor what is happening in the conference and across the country and will change our course if we find any evidence for disease transmission during competition, either at Willamette or within or amongst other NWC teams. We note that the NWC ban on spectators at athletic competitions, as well as our existing social distancing, masking, and ventilation practices, further reduce any risk to other members of the university community.
These exceptions are not, of course, the only ones that have been made to our campus COVID mitigation policies as part of our ongoing risk-benefit balancing, as the ROC has considered requests on a case-by-case basis. In the coming weeks, assuming Marion County continues to transition into lower COVID risk categories, it will be important to hear from you about your priorities for changes to campus protocols and policies as we slowly transition back toward what we hope will be regular campus operations by next fall. The ROC will communicate more about what this process will look like later in the semester.
I continue to be impressed by the perseverance of our students, staff, and faculty through this pandemic year, and by the ROC's leadership in finding a path that affirms both the value of Willamette's educational mission and the challenges of protecting community health.
Non nobis solum,