By Ben Peters
Athens NEWS Associate Editor
All first and second year Ohio University students will be given the option to live on-campus for the upcoming spring semester, university officials announced Thursday at a special Board of Trustees meeting, all but guaranteeing a substantial increase in the Athens student population.
The semester will tentatively begin Jan. 19, 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, something many schools across the state have done, 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 spring break. Classes are expected to finish by April 24.
Most students will live in dorms with a roommate, according to a news release from the university, raising questions about residence hall safety. A select number of singles are available upon request. The more than 1000 students who were authorized to live on-campus in the fall were all assigned singles.
Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Duane Nellis for public health operations, said her team is working to implement a way to alert students about the severity of spread within their residence hall. She said a residence hall was successfully used this semester as a proof of concept for the system and that other universities have found that similar tactics were effective in reducing spread.
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. All students who live on-campus will be required to get a COVID-19 test, provided by the university, once a week. Those who live off-campus will be tested bi-weekly, Ice said.
“We’ll have a lot more students in the residence halls and in the community, so this is a much more open plan, but also with the right precautions built in and monitoring systems built in for the safety of our university and community,” Nellis said at the meeting.
Students who originally anticipated living on-campus in the spring will be contacted by OU’s Housing and Residence Life department by Friday with instructions on how to finalize their housing plan. Students must decide by Nov. 16 if they wish to return to campus.
It’s not clear if upperclassmen will be able to submit a request to live in a dorm. Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, indicated that Housing is prioritizing those with existing housing contracts and won’t know if it’s possible to allocate additional space until they can determine the numbers of students who plan to return. Most upperclassmen have access to off-campus rental housing.
A greater number of face-to-face, hybrid and synchronous classes will be made available and students still have the option to take all of their classes remotely — even if they live on-campus.
Winter and spring sports are also planned to move forward unless the MAC or NCAA rule otherwise.
While it’s impossible to tell what the COVID-19 landscape will look like in January, public health experts anticipate the coming months to be the very worst of the pandemic as the outdoor temperature cools and people move inside where the virus thrives.
“We need to all be aware that right now the situation is not good and it’s going to stay dangerous over the winter months,” said Winfried Just, an OU professor who studies the transmission of infectious diseases.
Although people ages 29 and younger — most being OU students — still make up the lion’s share of positive cases in the county, Athens for the first time has recently begun to show signs of community spread beyond the student population and into older demographics that are at a significantly higher risk of becoming hospitalized and dying from the virus.
Ohio Health O’Bleness Hospital’s capacity to care for COVID-19 patients is severely limited with only eight intensive care unit beds, placing it in danger of becoming easily overwhelmed as more of the at-risk population falls ill.
Though, several OhioHealth sites across the state have been designated as “locations to care for a surge of critical care patients” should O’Bleness become overwhelmed, including Riverside Methodist Hospital, Grant Medical Center, Doctors Hospital, Mansfield Hospital and Marion General Hospital.