Ohio University students last week began moving into dorms for spring semester, some for the for the first time, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Athens County.
All first and second-year students were given the option to live on-campus this semester, as opposed to the phased approach of the fall where select groups were given priory based largely on their academic program.
As of Monday, the university expects more than 3,300 students to move into dorms within the next week, more than double the number in the fall, although that count will likely change as some students make last minute decisions on their spring plans, university spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said in an email. For context, about 6,800 students lived on campus in fall 2019, the semester prior to the pandemic.
Winfried Just, an OU professor who studies the transmission of infectious diseases, said he feels “uneasy” about the upcoming semester — though he prefaced that his opinion is based solely on personal intuitions rather than epidemiological modeling.
He would have preferred for the university to return to the phased approach rather than allowing students to return in quick succession. Cases of the virus in Athens County are, on average, higher than during the peak of fall semester, according to an Athens NEWS database of local COVID-19 numbers.
“We recognize that it is challenging to bring people back to campus while there is wide community spread of COVID-19 in the county, the state and the nation ... We know that no prevention measure will eliminate the spread of COVID, but we believe that we have put together a science-based, comprehensive strategy to manage outbreaks on campus,” said Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Duane Nellis for public health operations.
To compensate for the increase in the on-campus population, OU revamped much of its COVID-19 testing apparatus. In partnership with Vault Health, which manufactures a highly accurate saliva-based COVID-19 test, OU will operate a new asymptomatic testing program out of the Tennis Center located on South Green near Ping Recreation Center where it will be able to process 1,000 tests per day — significantly more than what was processed each day in the fall.
While Just praised the university’s increased testing efforts, he fears that students might feel emboldened with a false sense of security after getting a negative result when they may actually be infected and would have otherwise tested positive a day or two later.
All students returning to campus were required to complete an at-home test provided by Vault Health. Once on campus, students who live in dorms will be required to get a test once a week and those who live off-campus will be tested bi-weekly.
“No matter how good the tests are, no matter how often we test people within reason … there will be cases,” Just said.
Classes began Tuesday, a week later than previously scheduled to allow additional time for students to move in and quarantine once they arrive to town. Spring break was also eliminated in favor of three single-day “mini-breaks” that will be interspersed throughout the semester to the prevent mass travel that is often associated with the holiday. Classes are expected to finish by April 24.
Unlike the fall, many students will have roommates in their dorms, raising questions about residence hall safety. Five residence halls will be used solely for quarantine and isolation space should students test positive for the virus or be ordered into lockdown by the Athens City-County Health Department.
“Understand that we are in a dangerous situation, but there are certain trade-offs and certain risks and we don’t know how big the risk is — nobody knows,” Just said. “Be vigilant, be careful and let’s see what happens. Let’s all hope it works out.”