OHIO Community Has Mixed Reaction To Phased Return; University Assures It Has Safe Plans In Place

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Members of the Ohio University community have mixed reactions to the university’s announcement that students will return to the Athens campus this fall in phases, as the university assures it has plans in place to keep everyone safe. 

On Friday, University President M. Duane Nellis released some details about the new plan, which is a change from the original plan. Nellis said the health of the university community is “best supported” by a phased return to main campus and a hybrid plan for regional campuses. 

Carly Leatherwood, Ohio University spokesperson

University spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said the university has been working throughout the summer to develop a plan for fall semester. 

“As we started to get closer to the August 24 start date, Athens county was a red county when you look at the state’s ranking system for COVID cases,” she said. “So at that time we had to pivot and make the decision to have a phased approach to learning on the Athens campus.”

In the first phase, graduate and undergraduate students in certain programs will be allowed to return to main campus. This includes all undergraduate students in the aviation program, third-year students in the nursing program selected seniors in the College of Arts and Sciences and Russ College of Engineering, and juniors and seniors in ROTC, among others. All other students will begin the semester with online-only classes. Fall semester begins August 24. 

All students, faculty, and staff will be asked to sign the Ohio Pledge before they come back to campus, making a promise they will observe health and safety precautions — including wearing a mask. Leatherwood said anyone in violation of the pledge “will be held accountable,” as this is an official university policy. 

“So if it’s a faculty or staff member who’s not wearing a mask and they are able to do so they would go through a humanresources process, be talked to their supervisor and go through the process that way,” she said. “If a student’s not wearing a mask a violation of the university policy is a violation of the student code of conduct so they would go through ‘Community Standards & Student Responsibility’ in terms of the violation of that policy.”

Leatherwood said the university is giving students rebates on housing and dining contracts.

“We do expect that to be a loss,” she said. “But we were fortunate to receive some state funding to supplement pandemic-associated costs.” 

The university also has funding set aside through the Ohio CARES fund to assist students, she said.

A sign inside one of Ohio University's academic buildings encouraging students to fill seats from the back of the room
A sign inside one of Ohio University’s academic buildings encouraging students to fill seats from the back of the room [ Michelle Rotuno-Johnson | WOUB]
Dr. Loren Lybarger, president of OU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the announcement is a “positive sign” the university is taking steps to keep the OU community safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but added online classes are the best option. 

“We all want to return to in-person classes and normal campus life; but given the spiking infection rates, online is our safest, wisest option at this point,” he said. “Also, it is critical that faculty continue to wield primary decision-making authority over how best to deliver the curriculum to their students under these conditions.” 

Leatherwood said the provost’s office has been working with faculty who do not feel safe coming back to campus on alternative teaching arrangements. 

“We’ve had staff on campus throughout the summer,” she said. “I know that Facilities crews have been doing extra cleaning.”  When asked whether there were concerns regarding having enough custodial staff after recent layoffs, Leatherwood said, “I’m not privy to conversations that have been or are taking place about that but I do think it’s something we will continue to monitor as more people come back to campus.”

Leatherwood also explained that the university won’t know how many students will be on campus during this first phase until tall students who are able to return are notified. 

“We have resident hall rooms set up so that they can be safely distanced from other students living in the residence halls as well,” she said. 

One Ohio University parent, who did not want to be identified, lives in Athens and said his daughter tested positive for the virus over the summer. He said he can’t imagine how difficult contracting COVID-19 would be for a student who lives far from home.

“Can they even go back home?” He said. “Knowing that maybe they can infect their parents. Do they stay here where they maybe don’t have a strong of a support system? Maybe there’s a peer support network that would kick in.” 

Leatherwood said that if students living on campus become ill, the university has rooms set aside to quarantine and isolate. 

“If someone becomes ill while they’re living in a dorm, more likely than not, if they’re able to return home, they’ll want to do so and we’ll encourage them to do so,” she said. 

“I think we’ve done a good job implementing some measures to help give people some peace of mind that we really are taking this seriously and that the health and safety of our community is our top priority.” 

Dozens of Facebook users commented on the university’s post Friday. Some criticized the decision, while others praised it, and some expressed confusion.

“This is perfect,” Isa Arantes wrote. “It addressed a lot of our needs in my opinion.” 

Bill Christy wrote that other people should not “rush to judgment.” 

“OU closely monitored the pandemic in the state and town,” he said. “The governor laid down the new mask rules and the unfortunate numbers of Athens’ virus count didn’t help either.” 

Suellen Jennings wrote that the university “waited too long to make this decision.”

“There should have been a lot more notice,” she said. 

Brenda Channing Read wrote that her child, an OU student, was ready to move in and said “to do this last minute is unbelievable and unacceptable.” 

Students in other programs will begin fall classes online August 24 and continue remotely until September 27. 

“We will continue to monitor conditions and seek the advice of public health officials to inform a second phase, beginning September 28,” Nellis said. 

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