Vaccinations advance at Southern Oregon University despite regional challenges

Planning and communication clear path for return to the classroom

October 5, 2021 6:00 am

Southern Oregon University in Ashland returns to classes after a successful effort to promote vaccinations. (SOU photo)

ASHLAND – Education works. Outreach makes a difference. Encouragement is a key.

Southern Oregon University is located in and serves a region where COVID-19 vaccination is not yet universally accepted as the most effective weapon against our ongoing pandemic, and the most direct path toward a pre-COVID way of life. But SOU gladly qualifies as an outlier in our region and a leader in our state. Our students, faculty and staff have taken the steps necessary to safeguard their personal health and contribute to the common good of our community.

SOU, like Oregon’s six other public universities, adopted an “attestation” policy a few months ago, requiring all students and employees to attest before the start of fall term that they are fully vaccinated, or to request an exemption based on verifiable medical or religious grounds.

As our fall term gets underway, 90 percent of our students enrolled for in-person classes have completed their online attestation forms, and more than 87 percent of those have confirmed that they are fully vaccinated. More than 91 percent of our employees have completed their attestation forms, and 93 percent of those are now vaccinated.

This is a dramatic success for SOU, particularly in the context of our region. Jackson County, where we are located, has achieved full vaccination of 49.6 percent of eligible residents, and 55.8 percent have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine. Our county commissioners have declined to endorse either vaccination or mask-wearing to slow the pandemic.

Vaccination is even less accepted in surrounding counties – the rates for one dose or more are 48.9 percent in Josephine County, 48.1 percent in Klamath County and 52.6 percent in Douglas County. In Oregon, the statewide vaccination rate for one or more doses is 66.1 percent.

SOU is also one of the state’s leading public universities in achieving vaccination of students and employees, and providing a safe learning environment that includes a face mask policy for all in-person classes and activities.

I am understandably proud of our university’s response to the pandemic and preparation for the new academic year – particularly because our accomplishments have been by design, and due to the diligence of our entire campus community.

To be sure, we have sent a series of all-campus messages to inform students and employees of vaccine efficacy and availability, and the particulars of our vaccination and masking policies.

Our student services staff has also made concerted efforts to reach and communicate with every student individually – by email, phone and text. We have encouraged vaccination and cited the science that justifies it. We are also fortunate to be working with a population that is engaged in learning, and well-equipped to make informed decisions. Our university is a liberal arts institution that values human skills such as creativity, critical thinking and ethical decision-making.

SOU employees have readily participated for many of the same reasons as our students, including effective communication and personal support. Our attestation forms and policy have been well-designed, easy to understand and secure. We have discussed the pandemic transparently since it reached our campus in March 2020, and addressed it creatively to protect our employees and institution from many of its consequences.

Most of our classified and administrative staff were on 20 percent or 40 percent furloughs for 16 months, saving millions of dollars for the university, but qualifying for unemployment compensation and federal pandemic relief that made most financially whole.

Our employees know that they are genuinely valued and respected. They are invested in ensuring a safe workplace and learning environment.

All parts of SOU’s campus community have taken responsibility for their health and the safety of those with whom they have contact. They will be rewarded with a return to primarily on-campus classes on Oct. 11.

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Linda Schott
Linda Schott

Linda Schott received her bachelor’s degree in history and German from Baylor University, and her master’s degree in history and Ph.D. in history and humanities, both from Stanford University. She held various administrative positions in higher education before taking her first presidential post at University of Maine at Presque Isle and has announced she will retire later this year after 5 1/2 years as SOU's president.