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COVID-19 pushes courses online

Spring term will be taught remotely to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus

Portland State will hold all courses either remotely or not at all starting spring term, joining the community-wide effort to curb the COVID-19 outbreak. 


The decision was first announced in an email from PSU Interim President Stephen Percy, one amid a near-daily slew of updates by the university to ensure students are informed. 


Campus offices will remain open, but PSU is urging campus events and gatherings to be held remotely whenever possible. The plans for teaching classes remotely will then be reevaluated in mid-April, with future guidance from health officials.


“The threat of [COVID-19] is presenting daunting challenges for all of us,” Percy stated. “We are committed to making decisions that promote the success and well-being of our campus community and growing concerns across Oregon.”


In another email update sent to university students and staff, Percy released a video message, listing PSU’s priorities in responding to the outbreak: protecting the health and wellbeing of PSU’s community, maintaining instruction so that students’ academic progress isn’t disrupted and being a responsible community partner in helping to stop COVID-19. 


Previously, PSU planned to follow interim recommendations released by the Oregon Health Association on March 8, which urged schools not to close campuses where there were no confirmed cases of the virus, and to “consider all alternatives before closing a school, college or university in the event that a COVID-19 case is detected among students or staff.”


However, as of March 11, The World Health Organization has officially named COVID-19 a pandemic.


Since then, Oregon Governor Kate Brown has banned any public gathering in the state of over 250 people, and the next day, ordered the closure of all public schools until March 31. 


“PSU, UO [University of Oregon] and OSU [Oregon State University] all decided this week to offer all classes remotely,” stated Chris Broderick, the associate vice president for university communications. “After state and local health officials and Gov. Brown made clear that the threat of the coronavirus spreading has grown and avoiding close in-person interactions reduces the risk of students and faculty contracting the virus.” 


UO and OSU also decided to offer all spring courses remotely on Wednesday, taking similar preventative measures as PSU. These include suspending all nonessential university travel, canceling events of over 50 attendees and requiring that all winter term finals be taken remotely as well. 


Among the departments preparing for and implementing changes in response to COVID-19 is the Center for Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), the closest health clinic for many students, especially those living in on-campus housing. 


“There’s a lot of anxiety,” said Mark Bajorek, the director and a physician at SHAC, “There’s a lot of people with good intentions wanting to make sure they protect friends and families that are vulnerable. There are students that have medical concerns and want to make sure that they stay healthy and can complete their studies.“ 


As part of their response, SHAC implemented a new screening process for everyone entering their office: as soon as someone walks through the clinic’s doors, they are greeted by a clinician ready with a thermometer and questions about their symptoms. 


“We started screening people for temperatures and then talking to them about their exposure factors, and if they had a cough and a fever,” Bajorek explained. “And if they did have a fever, we’re routing them to a different entrance so we don’t spread any virus through the clinic.”  


Other departments, such as Campus Rec, have opted to close entirely until further notice. 


While there are still many unknowns surrounding the novel coronavirus, what is known is how easily COVID-19 spreads from person to person. In these cases, where there is little known of the virus itself and a vaccine is not available before it becomes an outbreak, the only and most effective way of slowing the spread of the disease is to prevent people from getting it in the first place, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC)


“I think that’s the most important part of this virus is that it’s easily transmissible—every virus has the capacity to cause damage,” said Carlos Crespo, the vice provost and professor with OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. “This specific virus is very dangerous for a community, because it spreads easily between community members.”


The CDC strongly recommends social distancing as an important step to limiting the spread of COVID-19, where individuals stay at least six feet apart from one another, and events of over 50 people are either canceled or postponed. 


“At the end of the day, what we want is humans not to be in close contact with each other,” Crespo said.


However, for many students, there are as many unknowns regarding COVID-19 and the school’s response. In particular are the anxieties felt by student workers, who are concerned that fewer hours working for the university may dramatically impact their ability to pay for their tuition. 


“I’m kind of a little anxious,” explained Phay Kyaw, a PSU student and student worker. “I mean, if the school is closed, I’m like, will we be open? If we’re not open, I won’t be able to work. If I won’t be able to work, yeah, I can survive this term, but if this continues on, I might run out of money in my bank account to use to pay for my tuition.”


“What I get from income from the school, most of that money goes to my rent,” said Nayeli Naranjo, who works for PSU’s Game Room and Portland State Professional Sound. “And then my other job off campus is [that] I work for venues…all Portland venues are shut down for the next 30 days. So, yeah, I don’t really have any work for the next month.”


“I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to pay for tuition because I have Four Years Free…But I am worrying about paying for rent, because I don’t know if I will have enough money for that.”


Other students are simply worried how remote learning will affect their class experience.


“I’m kind of bummed that we don’t have class for like two weeks in the spring term, because I don’t get to see my friends and it’s going to be hard to have to do everything online,” said Ivy Clark, a PSU student. Her friend, William Britton, agreed. 


“There is a lack of face-to-face interaction, and [there’s] just kind of a feeling of isolation,” Britton said. “We’re encouraged to be socially distant when it comes to staying home. So it has its benefits, but also, it’s a little bit frightening because everything’s shutting down.”


Students who are relatively young will generally have an easier time fighting milder symptoms of the disease, compared to higher risk groups such as the elderly, according to Bajorek. For students who are immunosuppressed—at a higher risk of experiencing worse symptoms if they are exposed to the virus—waiting for the school to hold classes remotely couldn’t come quickly enough. 


“I have to be very proactive with my healthcare,” said Nicholas Lahusen, a PSU student who is immunosuppressed due to medication. “[The outbreak] has made me have to be quarantined at home an extra week, and it’s made me have to communicate with my professors online, which is not what I signed up for when I wanted to take my classes, but if that’s what I got to do, that’s what I got to do.”


“Unless people who are immunosuppressed are giving you the information, there’s no way that you would know. And once you do know, it’s pretty much just a matter of being a little bit more proactive with your hand sanitizer, coughing in your sleeve, not spitting on people when you talk.”


As a global pandemic, no one person will be able to stop the spread of COVID-19; however, there are still steps that every person can take that, together, can slow the novel coronavirus down. 


The first step for individuals to combat COVID-19 is to keep your hands clean and wash them often, according to the CDC. Use hand sanitizer where sinks aren’t available, and avoid touching your face. 


Social distancing remains an important tool to reduce exposing healthy individuals to the virus, whether it is first prompted by an organization cancelling events or a university hosting its courses remotely. This is especially important to remember once finals end and spring break begins, when many students have planned to be especially social. 


“Really, this will be the time to be thinking, maybe I won’t visit my grandparents over spring break, or I should be thoughtful about exposing other people in my life that are 65 and older,” Bajorek said. “Hang in there. Wash your hands…cover your cough. Think about, try to work on social distancing.”


“It’s hard to be socially distant because, as animals, we’re very social. And we depend on social interaction. And we need social support, we need to build community,” Crespo said. 


So while it may be impossible for an individual to stop COVID-19 in their community, a community that comes together to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus is exactly what doctors around the world have ordered.