Another important leg of Athens’ summer economy has collapsed, with Ohio University announcing on its website last Thursday that its precollege/orientation program for first-year and other new students will go to online-only in June.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prompted that decision, as it did a decision that OU announced on April 3 to shift its summer academic sessions to online-only.
The decisions to scrap in-person aspects of the so-called Bobcat Student Orientation (BSO) and the summer academic sessions are expected to have negative impacts on local business and employment this summer, following the cancellation of half of Spring Semester’s in-person classes.
The most immediate effect is OU notifying 131 seasonal culinary employees that their services likely won’t be needed this summer.
An employee who asked not to be identified forwarded to The Athens NEWSan email from Chuck Wagers, assistant director of retail operations for OU Culinary Services, that 13 seasonal culinary employees at Baker Center had received shortly after 5 p.m. last Friday. The letter informed them that due to summer sessions and BSO going online, “and numerous conferences and weddings” canceling or rescheduling this summer, “there may be minimal work opportunities if the governor lifts the stay-at-home order and if the university reopens, or there may be no work available this summer.”
The email added, “Seasonal employees will not be eligible for unemployment or for paid leave through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act.”
Asked about the message, OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood explained Monday, “The email you referenced… was sent to only the 13 seasonal employees (at Baker). However, a total of 131 seasonal employees received this or similar messages from Culinary Services Managers.”
In a follow-up email, she explained that most of the hourly culinary staff (non-student) at OU are seasonal employees. “They are members of the AFSCME union, and they agreed to employment terms in their contracts that is reflective of the nature of this work being seasonal. These are the cooks, bakers, culinary custodial staff, etc. Historically, we have been able to extend work opportunities to many of these folks during the breaks, but there isn’t a workforce need right now to do so.”
A longtime uptown business owner sounded a somber tone last Friday when reacting to the latest reports about OU’s summer changes, after this story was posted toThe Athens NEWS’ Facebook page.
Gene Armes, co-owner and manager at the College Book Store on South Court Street, noted that reopening retail on Court Street “is almost going to become a moot point.
“There will be no one to sell to until late August at the earliest,” he wrote. “If fall events are canceled, then you will see nothing but empty storefronts on Court Street and beyond. There will be many uptown merchants that won't survive this...”
Ohio University has yet to announce its plans for Fall Semester, though it has said it hopes to resume in-person classes.
Armes listed the various Spring Semester events that got canceled this year, all big revenue producers for local businesses. “The last true event we had that impacted uptown was Sib's Weekend in February,” Armes said. “We lost Mom's Weekend, Graduation, and now BSO Precollege. Mom's and Graduation are our two best retail events of Spring Semester. I am currently closed but still paying our fulltime staff and keeping their insurance paid, but it's going to be a long hard summer.”
AS FOR BOBCAT Student Orientation, until this year, June in Athens had featured successive groups of new students and their families each week (for two-day sessions) arriving for the BSO program (called “precollege” or “freshman orientation” in past years). According to numbers released by OU in July 2016, BSO brought 10,000 new students and their families to Athens that June, including 4,400 first-year and 300 transfer students.
In its website alert, Ohio University stated on April 16, “For the safety of our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bobcat Student Orientation (BSO) will be offered remotely this summer for incoming Athens campus students. Required for all new first-year and transfer students, BSO provides important access to academic advising and course registration and helps families prepare for the transition to OHIO.”
The notice explained that the new virtual program will take place on the same dates originally scheduled for BSO. “Additionally,” it said, “some elements of the traditional BSO program now will be offered through new online activities that will take place both before and after the BSO sessions.”
One knowledgeable source told The Athens NEWSthat current students who had been scheduled to work for the BSO program in Athens will be reassigned to help with the online orientation program.
As for summer sessions at OU, Provost Elizabeth Sayrs said in an email to students and staff April 3 that the university will continue its all-online/all-remote instruction model throughout its summer semester (both sessions).
Sayrs said the university made this decision in light of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's decision that week to extend Ohio's stay-at-home order to May 1. DeWine has said that the state plans to begin reopening for business that day, gradually. In his press conference on Tuesday, DeWine said the virus precautions necessary as of Ohio's partial May 1 reopening – and which types of businesses will be allowed to reopen – will be announced today (Thursday).
"All summer classes will be delivered through remote instruction, including lectures, labs, studios, and other primarily classroom-based classes," Sayrs said in her notice on April 3. "We will continue to review the possibility of offering required clinical experiences, practica, or similar face-to-face experiences, especially during the second summer session, and we will announce any changes in status as soon as possible."
Sayrs added that OU will seek to "reopen laboratories and other research spaces"when the state permits the university to do so, as soon as OU can do so safely. "The health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and campus communities will remain our top priority," she said.
OU's full summer semester starts May 11 and continues through Aug. 15. The first session runs from May 11 to June 27, and the second session runs from June 29 to Aug. 15.
Even with in-person orientation and summer sessions canceled, it appears that many students who live off campus are still in town, just from looking at student apartment complex parking lots and social media. Whether that situation will continue as Spring Semester leases expire at the start of May, and new leases begin, remains uncertain.