Ohio University's Baker Center

Ohio University’s Baker Center. Photo by Ben Peters.

The Ohio University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demanded in a statement released Thursday that the university reverse course and immediately move most classes online for at least the entirety of the upcoming academic year, as many faculty members wait in distress for the return of in-person classes.

“It is our conclusion that bringing some 14,000 students back to campus for fall term is likely to result in a superspreader event of potentially disastrous proportions,” the AAUP statement reads. “If the goal is for all of us to survive and to save the future of Ohio University, this is not the proper path forward. This may be our last opportunity to make the right choice.”

The OU AAUP argued in the statement that widespread compliance among students with public health guidelines such as social distancing and masking, which will be mandated at the city, county and state levels beginning Thursday night, is “highly unlikely.”

The organizers’ believe that students will not take proper precautions to mitigate spread of COVID-19 and instead “prioritize their normal socializing activities off campus,” such as gathering in groups, regardless of the public health requirements mandated on campus.

“This has already proven to be the case in the numerous parties that occurred in Athens, Ohio during the months of June and July,” the statement reads.

Nearly 70 percent of confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 in Athens County are among people age 29 or younger, according to The Ohio Department of Health’s (ODH) COVID-19 database, though many who more recently tested positive were not in that age bracket.

And although ODH and Gov. Mike DeWine said that the majority of confirmed cases in the county originated in bars and restaurants, Athens County public health officials have provided conflicting information on the true origin of cases among young people.

As of Tuesday, Athens County is classified as a “Level 3” county under the state’s Public Health Advisory Alert System, denoting “very high exposure and spread.” Athens County last week was also the only county in the state nearing “Level 4,” or the most severe public health advisory that encourages residents to “only leave home for supplies and services,” but has since been revoked of that designation.

The OU AAUP said it’s “likely” that the county’s COVID-19 outbreak will only worsen when thousands of students flood town “by virtue of the sheer number of potential spreaders when combined with non-compliance.”

“The highly vulnerable region of Appalachia in which Ohio University and its regional campuses are located will likely face high degrees of contagion, illness, and death due to the failure of OU to adjust its plans in response to our evolving knowledge about the virus,” the statement reads.

They also argued that the local hospital systems aren’t prepared for a greater surge in COVID-19 patients. As of Thursday, there have been 13 total hospitalizations related to the virus since late March, according to ODH.

OhioHealth’s O’Bleness is licensed for 144 beds, which is the number of beds the hospital has approved to operate, not necessarily the number of beds that are physically available. The hospital has eight intensive care unit beds and it designated several off-site locations to care for virus patients should a surge in cases demand the additional space, The NEWS previously reported.

O’Bleness also previously said that it’s working with the OU administration on fall semester plans, though no details have been finalized.

Additionally, the OU AAUP made an unsubstantiated claim in the statement that the OU administration believes its financial health is predicated on the return of students to campus.

“I would say that everyone assumes that this is the reason, however, since we know that the university gets a lot of revenue from room and board. We also know that nationally, there is a fear that students and their parents are reluctant to pay full tuition for online classes,” OU AAUP member Judith Grant said in an email.

OU’s handling of the pandemic, alongside its pre-existing budgetary woes, “reflects a failure to mount a creative, powerful and heroic response to this crisis,” The OU AAUP said.

The AAUP’s statement was crafted by about 10 people, including chapter members and other concerned OU faculty, OU AAUP President Loren Lybarger said. It was sent to members of the OU administration, the governor’s office, Ohio House Representative Jay Edwards, Ohio state Senator Tina Maharath, and Faculty Senate, he said.

The statement was released following a Zoom meeting held two weeks ago that was hosted by the OU AAUP and drew more than 100 OU professors.

Many who attended said they feel uninformed of the policies and procedures the university has in place to ensure the protection of their personal health. Others expressed anxiety and discomfort at the likely prospect of teaching in-person classes to thousands of undergraduate students.

More than one meeting participant advocated that AAUP members and other faculty coalesce around refusing to comply with the university’s plans to move forward with the semester in-person.

Others (who aren’t tenured) worried that doing so could lead to retaliation against them, such as simply being replaced by another professor who would be willing to teach amid the pandemic.

That suggestion, however, was not explored in the OU AAUP’s statement.

“The AAUP is not encouraging non-compliance. We are trying to take a positive approach and to provide alternatives for our leadership,” Grant, who moderated last week’s Zoom meeting, said.

Carly Leatherwood, an OU spokesperson, declined to directly comment on the OU AAUP’s demand for the university to move most classes online.

“The University is currently finalizing policies that require students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear face coverings. We are working to ensure classroom spaces safely allow for social distancing, and all classes with more than 30 students will be conducted in an online modality to meet safety needs,” Leatherwood said.

“We are installing signage across campus, and more to ensure public health guidance is understood and followed. Faculty have been provided with the opportunity to request alternate teaching arrangements for the fall, and we have had more than 500 requests from faculty members, which are all being honored by the University. Finally, our public health experts are actively working to develop partnerships that will allow for testing and case management.”

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