As students began to arrive at Southwestern Oregon Community College on Friday, they were met with an unexpected sight - professors protesting.
Just days before classes were scheduled to begin Monday, teachers from SWOCC were protesting a rule requiring all teachers to teach on campus. Due to rising COVID cases, the American Federation of Teachers union at SWOCC was asking for the right to let teachers decide if they wanted to teach in person or online.
Mike Springer, the vice president of the faculty union, was leading the small protest Thursday, despite saying he intended to teach in-person.
"We surveyed the faculty and nine faculty said they wanted to teach online, the other 30-something said they wanted to teach in person," Springer said. "So, the majority want to teach in person, but we weren't given an option."
Springer said a handful of faculty at the college have compromised immune systems or family members at risk. With COVID cases and deaths at record levels in the community, the union was hoping to get permission for that group to stay off campus for their own safety.
SWOCC President Patty Scott shared a notice she sent to faculty and students regarding the reopening. She said the school has been working diligently to open for in-person classes.
“The college committed during Spring Term 2021 to transitioning over the summer into traditional on-site and in-person activities at SWOCC for the 2021-2022 year,” Scott wrote. “We made these decisions with much thoughtful discussion and deliberation. Many departments and staff members worked together over the summer to update the plan. In addition, we have observed closely the ongoing face-to-face courses at other community colleges and transitions of other colleges to in-person classes. We also have participated in many discussions with other colleges around best practices and learned from their experiences what is a reasonable path forward to maintain health and safety for all.”
Springer said in the last week, three new COVID cases were reported at SWOCC.
"Students are just showing up today, so before students have even arrived on campus, we've had three cases reported," Springer said Thursday.
Scott said the college fully anticipates COVID cases and it prepared to respond.
“The college will continue to implement its process of tracing, notification and quarantining per policy on a case-by-case basis,” she wrote. “I will reinforce that over the past year, most CTE programs have resumed in-person instruction as scheduled, with a minimal number of COVID cases. Our athletic teams have competed in Oregon and out of state, and successfully followed safety protocols. Our college, successfully and with our students’ cooperation, has kept cases to a small number in housing. Based on this and in consultation with state authorities, we are moving forward with the re-opening plan as intended, with resumption of college courses in-person as scheduled. In addition, all workgroups that have been working remotely have returned to both campuses and services to students have resumed in-person. “
Springer said the faculty union met with administrators early last week and asked for professors to be given an option regarding online versus in-person teaching. He said Wednesday night, the administration emailed back, requiring all classes to be taught in person.
While the state of Oregon has mandated that all school faculty in K-12 schools be vaccinated, and all major universities in the state vaccine mandates for faculty and students, there is no requirement for community colleges in Oregon.
Few people are more supportive and understanding of vaccines than Zinzi Konig, a nursing instructor and epidemiologist at SWOCC. She is fully vaccinated and volunteered at the early vaccination clinics at Bay Area Hospital. She also understands the dangers of COVID, so she joined the protest Thursday.
"It doesn't make you look weak to change your mind based on the Delta variant," she said. "It makes you strong to follow the data. I just want administration to be a flexible as we are."
As a professor, Konig said she has been flexible with her students because she would prefer they learn from home rather than bring COVID to campus.
"Some of my students work in COVID units and they ask permission not to come in and I say yes," Konig said. "They're doing the responsible thing."
Konig said she is fully vaccinated, but she understands why some people might be hesitant.
"I imagine some people might be afraid of the vaccine because of (the) Tuskegee (Experiment)," she said. "But I never imagined we wouldn't give them the sane opportunity for education."
Konig said in her role in the healthcare industry, she believes COVID is a risk that will not go away. As a result, the community must be ready to adapt.
"This was a selective event, and now we have to adapt to survive," she said. "There is never going back. Going back meant school shootings and bullying, something that didn't work for everyone."
While Konig was protesting for the right to let teachers choose, she said she would be in class for her students.
"I will keep teaching in person because there are some students that need that for their mental health," she said.
Springer said even the school data shows online education is popular right now. He said 70 percent of classes fully online are full, while the number is far less for in-person classes. He said the administration at SWOCC is even requiring teachers doing online classes to report to campus to teach the classes.
"From what we can tell, students would prefer to be online," Springer said.
Piper Lisseveld, a professor of computer information systems and cyber security, also joined the protest. Lisseveld said some of her classes are online with others in person.
"I'm out here today for choice," Lisseveld said. "Currently, faculty does not have the choice for model of teaching. Some are being forced to teach in person. It's pretty ridiculous."
Scott said the college will continue to follow the recommendations of local, state and federal health leaders when it comes to COVID. On campus, that means the following steps will be taken.
· Continually informing staff and students on consistent and correct use of masks
· Continually implementing and encouraging physical distancing
· Communicating handwashing and respiratory etiquette
· Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine
· Testing for COVID-19 (Athletics)
· Offering and promoting vaccination
· Maintaining healthy environments (increased ventilation and cleaning)
· Maintaining healthy operations (communications, supportive policies and health equity).