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Oklahoman Point of View: Best student outcomes are on campus

We have labored over whether to resume classes this fall at the six universities in the Regional University System of Oklahoma. After much thought and discussion with our students, faculty and staff, our decision is “yes,” we will be fully operational for the fall semester.

We recognize there will be modifications; first and foremost, we will focus on the health and safety of students, faculty and staff. As the largest four-year university system in the state, our 38,000 students will have the opportunity to return to campus at East Central University, Northeastern State, Northwestern Oklahoma State, Southeastern Oklahoma State, Southwestern Oklahoma State and the University of Central Oklahoma.

Since March, the world has changed. All classes on the Regional University System campuses transitioned to online learning. Many of our graduates are participating in virtual commencement ceremonies as COVID-19 changed how family and friends can celebrate this major accomplishment.

Although these past few weeks were not what our students envisioned for the end of the semester, they adapted quickly and rose to the challenge. That resilience will serve them well the rest of their lives. This spring more than 5,500 RUSO graduates will enter the workforce with degrees in health care, laboratory sciences, pharmacy, engineering, information technology, data analytics, public policy, communications and more. They are joining the working world at a time we need them the most. Fortunately for us, 92% of these graduates will stay and work in Oklahoma, making our communities even stronger than they are today.

A majority of undergraduate students report that they prefer in-person classes and face-to-face interaction with professors and other students rather than online learning. It is difficult to show a nursing student how to start an IV or a chemistry student how to conduct a lab experiment with no hands-on interaction. Our students need access to our classrooms, libraries, rehearsal rooms and labs to fully engage in learning, research and instruction. That is the educational experience students expect and deserve and what Oklahoma employers want and need.

Students anticipate returning to our campuses because they know we will work together to mitigate the risk of illness and because they know that over their lifetime, their earnings are significantly higher with a college degree. They pursue a degree because they want to feel valued and respected and they want to make a difference in tomorrow’s world. This positive force, this quest for answers and this embrace of life with all its challenges, surprises and bumps, is why students, faculty and staff — our universities —come back day after day, semester after semester.

This piece was originally published in the The Oklahoman

Winchester is the chair of the RUSO Board of Regents

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