UO Fall Term Planning–Concerns about the Safety of In-Person and On-Campus Instruction

A letter to campus from one of our our Italian correspondents. Page down for her op-ed in today’s Oregonian:

From: Melissa Graboyes <graboyes@uoregon.edu>
Subject: UO Fall Term Planning–Concerns about the Safety of In-Person and On-Campus Instruction
Date: May 6, 2020 at 6:54:09 AM PDT
To: Andre Le Duc <leduc@uoregon.edu>
Cc: Bruce Blonigen <bruceb@uoregon.edu>, Karen Ford <fordk@uoregon.edu>, “Carol Stabile” <cstabile@uoregon.edu>, Philip Scher <pscher@uoregon.edu>, “President Michael Schill” <pres@uoregon.edu>, Provost <provost@uoregon.edu>, “Gabe Paquette” <paquette@uoregon.edu>, Dennis Galvan <dgalvan@uoregon.edu>, “H Leslie Steeves” <lsteeves@uoregon.edu>, Juan-Carlos Molleda <jmolleda@uoregon.edu>, Laura Vandenburgh <lkvanden@uoregon.edu>, “VP for Equity and Inclusion” <vpinclusion@uoregon.edu>, Sabrina Madison-Cannon <smadison@uoregon.edu>, Hal Sadofsky <sadofsky@uoregon.edu>, Sarah Nutter <snutter@uoregon.edu>, Lee Rumbarger <leona@uoregon.edu>, Sierra Dawson <sdawson@uoregon.edu>, Ron Bramhall <rcb@uoregon.edu>, Randy Kamphaus <randyk@uoregon.edu>, Kate Mondloch <mondloch@uoregon.edu>, Marcilynn Burke <maburke@uoregon.edu>

Dear Mr. Le Duc and UO Leadership,

I am writing to share my deep concerns about the current plans for the UO to open for in-person and on-campus instruction during fall term. I write as someone with professional training and expertise in the area of public health, as someone who is witnessing the Italian government’s response to the outbreak in the north, and as a committed faculty member. There are many reasons I am worried about fall plans, and believe that many of my concerns are shared by others in the UO community. I recognize that many talented people are working very hard on this issue, and I appreciate those efforts. However, I still believe that this decision about fall term is the wrong one, and that there are significant problems with the process being used to make decisions about the university’s Covid-19 response.

To that end, I respectfully request:
1. Greater transparency about current plans for fall term, including the specifics of how testing, tracking, and isolation systems would be built and function. The UO also ought to share information about who is part of the Incident Management Team (IMT) that is making such important decisions for our campus and for our wider community. There needs to be more communication about what this group is doing and how decisions are being made.

2. Greater faculty involvement in determining what is safe and acceptable risk for fall term and in gathering ideas and input from across the university community. Feedback from across campus should be gathered, compiled, and shared publicly so the community knows the range of concerns and opinions. This could be done through a university wiki or qualtrics survey with public results. Having people send individual emails or phone calls is not enough, and does not allow faculty, staff, or students to know whether their concerns are shared by a few other people, dozens of others, or hundreds across campus. Part of an effective public health response is about maintaining trust. This is a critical moment when trust can be quickly lost, or, ideally, sowed through open sharing of information and vigorous public discussion about what is best for our whole community.

3. Greater faculty involvement through the creation of an Expert Advisory Committee made up of roughly a dozen faculty to advise the Incident Management Team on the changing science, international public health best practices, and to allow the UO to make decisions that are not only based on finances and campus logistics. This group would leverage the UO’s knowledge bank of talented scientists and public health experts and allow for our campus to make more nuanced decisions and more realistic plans. In the past three months, there have been multiple times when agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) have been slow to respond to changing scientific data, or have chosen not to fully embrace methods that have been shown to be effective in other parts of the world. Two examples of this are around the dangers of asymptomatic transmission and the benefits of masking in reducing transmission. In both of these areas, all three of the agencies the UO turns to as official sources of information were weeks behind the scientific consensus, and still remain behind the curve in mandating masking in public. This Advisory Committee should also be public in that it’s members are known, and meetings and discussions should be as public as possible.

4. Greater sharing from the UO to the wider community about how effective measures could be taken on campus to keep the wider Eugene and Lane County community safe

I have shared these concerns in an open letter to colleagues (pasted below) and in an article running in today’s Oregonian: https://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/2020/05/opinion-to-stay-safe-university-of-oregon-must-stay-the-course-on-remote-learning.html

Thank you for your attention,


Melissa Graboyes, Ph.D., MPH
Associate Professor, Medical History & African History
Clark Honors College
University of Oregon


To stay safe, University of Oregon must stay the course on remote-learning

Melissa Graboyes

Graboyes is an associate professor of medical history and African history at the University of Oregon. She is currently living in northern Italy with her family while on research leave and writes about the Covid-19 outbreak at www.coronaviruschronicles.com

University of Oregon President Michael Schill recently sent a note outlining his commitment to an in-person and on-campus fall term. But considering how much of his note focused on the university’s financial picture, it’s worth questioning whether that or sound public health policy is driving that decision. As a UO faculty member, a trained public health professional, and someone who has directly experienced the COVID-19 outbreak in northern Italy, I feel strongly that the university’s current plan to open in the fall for in-person, on-campus teaching is unsafe. Reconvening tens of thousands of students from across the globe to live in close quarters with each other could jumpstart COVID-19 transmission on campus and spread into the wider community. For the safety of everyone, the UO ought to continue remote-learning for fall term.

In theory, I’m not opposed to the idea of the UO fully opening in fall, but it would require a heroic public health effort. Experts agree that safely having together thousands of people in contact—as would happen in dormitories, dining facilities, libraries, classrooms and labs—would require a robust plan for regular testing on campus, quickly tracking contacts of positive cases, and having facilities to isolate those who test positive. To effectively test, track, and isolate would require the UO to build a complex public health infrastructure that has eluded US states and rich European countries alike. When I see the wealthiest area in Italy still unable to roll out sufficient testing, when I see the EU unable to figure out a viable digital contact tracking strategy, and most countries unable to humanely isolate those who are positive, forgive me for saying I don’t think the UO can develop these systems independently in four months.

President Schill hasn’t provided any convincing information that suggests testing, tracking, or isolating protocols could be ready by September. In his note, there is a single sentence describing how the university’s Incident Management Team will “explore a variety of methods to safeguard our community” that include reducing density in offices, residence halls, and dining facilities; intensive cleaning of all facilities; and testing and contact tracing for students and employees. But how will that testing possibly be done at adequate levels, especially knowing that as many as 60% of positive cases are asymptomatic? The U.S., Oregon, and Lane County have all been unable to scale up testing to anywhere near reasonable levels. Veneto Province in northern Italy, where I am located, has spent millions of euros on tests and has the highest testing per capita in Italy; but it still remains below what experts say is necessary to catch and prevent a second wave of infection.

The news is not much better for building out contact tracing and isolation systems. Not a single U.S. state has put in place a convincing contact tracing program, though Massachusetts has a promising effort. Italy is trying to scale up tracing via apps and human workers but has run into legal challenges around privacy and resistance to using the apps. Finally, stopping an outbreak on campus would require places where people who test positive can recover without infecting others. Neither the United States nor Europe has set up effective out-of-home isolation facilities such as those used in China and South Korea. So, please forgive me (again) if I remain deeply skeptical that the university could complete all of these steps and have them ready in four months. The UO is a special place filled with talented and hardworking people whom I am lucky to call my colleagues and friends—but these are unreasonable expectations.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that the decision about fall term isn’t just about the university’s fiscal health—it’s about people’s actual health and actual lives. Oregon has been lightly hit so far, but we are not done with COVID-19. Witnessing the COVID-19 outbreak and response in Italy, I’ve seen what happens when an area gets the full brunt of a coronavirus outbreak and when health systems are overwhelmed. One of the ways our community can minimize risk is by acknowledging it is unrealistic and unsafe to have tens of thousands of students back on campus. To protect our community’s health, the UO needs to remain remote in fall.

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4 Responses to UO Fall Term Planning–Concerns about the Safety of In-Person and On-Campus Instruction

  1. IAmHopeful says:

    From the letter sent by the Provost I inferred that the UofO is participating in drawing and executing a plan that is shared by all the Universities in the three states of Washington, Oregon, and California. In the same way those states are designing a common policy in reopening the various business activities etc., they are also making a common policy for reopening the schools and universities. I am confident that, statistically, so many working brains will be able to make some sensible decision. No university will want to be sued by relatives of dead professors or dead students, just because they made a hurried and uninformed decision. So, yes, until I am proved wrong, I am hopeful for Fall.

  2. thedude says:

    The worst case scenario is bad. But staying remote probably won’t prevent us or our students from getting the virus over the next year, because people will eventually just quit distancing. It will probably destroy us financially.

    Even the lead epi researcher who convinced the US and UK broke social distancing himself to continue an affair with a married climate change activist.


    People will keep being human. And we will have limited reservoir of discipline.

    • Dog says:

      agreed that the worst case is bad for virtually everyone. My own personal belief is that some kind of vaccine will get developed in the near term to avoid the worst possible outcome on a longer

      Since I am old and somewhat responsible I have been mostly in self-isolation (for which I know full well that everyone is happy about just that) but occasional trips to campus has me observing the “young” people are not practicing social distancing and there are numerous other reports of this.

      I think most of Higher Ed will be watching what various institutions are doing. If most institutions more toward removing fall terms (and the football season) physical clases
      that will influence the UO to likely do the same.

      For Higher Ed, this might be a zero sum game so I am not sure the UO is particularly disadvantaged relative to other instutions.
      It just all sucks, especially the “remote” learning mechanism.

      • thedude says:

        At least we’re on quarters. If there are outbreaks at semester schools in September, we can switch back to online with at least as much notice as I had this year.

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