By Ben Peters
Athens NEWS Associate Editor
Ohio University students who in recent days were ordered into quarantine or isolation by The Athens City-County Health Department could be criminally charged if they leave their assigned residence hall before the date prescribed to them, with few exceptions, according to an agreement students signed within their housing contract.
Quarantined or isolated students who are not under an order from the health department found in violation of the agreement could be barred entirely from residence halls after they’re released, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Athens NEWS.
The health department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what specifically students who disobey its orders could be charged with.
The university may track swipes of students’ key cards to monitor whether they violated quarantine or isolation. Students in lockdown will only be able to swipe into their assigned residence hall, Hudson Hall — where Campus Care is located — or another on-campus testing site. Their cards won’t allow them to swipe into any other university facilities.
Students can’t leave their rooms unless they’re using an assigned restroom or to get food. In some instances, a case manager assigned to students through OhioHealth may instruct them to leave their room in the event of an unanticipated circumstance, such as a facility issue, a university spokesperson said.
The university may also direct students to be tested at a location on campus and require them to move from a quarantine hall to an isolation dorm if they receive a positive result, the agreement said.
“The intent is to have the ability to limit the number of times a student is permitted to leave and to outline who has the authority to give exceptions to leaving one’s room,” spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said.
Once students receive a verbal or written order from the health department that they’re authorized for release from isolation or quarantine, they’re required to contact their OhioHealth case manager to complete an online form providing proof of the order. Students won’t be permitted to leave until the university receives evidence of an order in writing, according to the agreement.
Quarantine and isolation buildings have no resident assistants, but students are instead given contact information of an on-call staff should they need assistance. Students are also prohibited from allowing guests into their residence halls.
The agreement stipulates that the university has the right to contract hotel rooms for quarantine or isolation space should the designated spaces become full. For the purpose of the agreement, the same rules apply for students in hotel rooms. As of Wednesday, there have been no known instances of students being assigned hotel rooms.
The university on Friday night vacated Boyd Hall under order from the health department after 19 of its 94 residents tested positive for the virus. Those who tested positive were relocated to isolation halls. The other 78 students were considered close contacts under the definition provided by the state and were relocated to separate dorms where they will be quarantined until Oct. 21.
The Boyd cluster was the first known incidence of a significant outbreak within an OU residence hall. More than 1,000 students moved into dorms in recent weeks as part of the university’s second phase of reopening. And thousands more likely moved into their off-campus residences, if they had not already done so for phase 1.
Since then, Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Duane Nellis for public health operations and a Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine faculty member, reported in her weekly update that 18 more students living in Boyd tested positive for the virus.
Two more residence halls were vacated Tuesday afternoon, also under order from the health department, after 16 positive cases were discovered of Jefferson Hall’s 69 residents and 22 positive cases were found within Tiffin Hall’s 78 residents. Their quarantine will last until Oct. 25.
Ice said she and her team are closely monitoring the case counts in Sargent, James, Sowle and Tanaka Halls and asked that students redouble their efforts to maintain social distance and wear masks.
The clusters of positive cases in all three residence halls were detected early in part through what Ice has called “wide-net” asymptomatic testing, which involves testing multiple students living in the same residence hall after a few positive cases were discovered within the dorm.
Cases in Athens County have on average risen to the highest point they’ve been since the beginning of the pandemic, largely because of off-campus students’ activities.
Ice told the OU Board of Trustees last week that her team suspects between seven to 10 thousand total students are currently living in Athens based on conversations with landlords and records of those who logged onto the university’s network since August.
They also believe based on anecdotal evidence that students are frequently traveling between Athens and their hometowns across the state, which could further precipitate spread.
Sydney Dawes contributed reporting.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comment and clarification from a university spokesperson.