Ohio University reversed course Friday on its previous plans to proceed with fall semester in-person. Instead, most students will now begin their classes online for at least the first month of fall semester as confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to mount both nationwide and across the state.
While the semester is still set to begin at the end of next month, most students enrolled at the Athens campus will start their fall classes remotely on Aug. 24 and continue remotely at least through Sept. 27, according to a statement from the university.
OU President Duane Nellis in a letter acknowledged that the university formulated much of its reopening plan during May and June when COVID-19 cases were largely down in both Ohio and across the county, but that the current realities of the pandemic have led them to amend their approach to operating an institution that would have rapidly re-introduced thousands of students into the community.
Through a phased return to campus, OU plans to eventually allow more students to participate in some face-to-face classes, depending on public health recommendations and the state of the pandemic at large.
During phase 1 — Aug. 24 through Sept. 27 — some exemptions will be made for “a limited number of graduate and undergraduate students in a carefully selected set of academic programs” to return to campus.
The university plans to notify students in those programs, which require in-person experiences for accreditation or access to on-campus equipment and facilities, by Aug. 7, according to the statement.
Phase 2 is set to begin Sept. 28 and will increase face-to-face classes “as much as possible,” though there is no guarantee phase 2 will ever see the light of day.
Students planning to live in on-campus residence halls who are not included in phase 1 will not move back to campus immediately.
Housing and dining charges will be reversed for students next week to account for the time they won’t be living on campus, according to an email sent to all students from OU’s Housing and Residence Life department.
Students at OU are required to live in dorms for their first two years under most circumstances. Those who anticipate living in dorms should they return to campus in late September are prohibited under the student code of conduct from renting off-campus housing in the meantime.
“Pursuing off-campus housing would not allow us to achieve necessary de-densification in Athens during Phase 1 to ensure community safety,” the email reads. “Students who sign an off-campus lease will be financially responsible for both an off-campus lease and on campus housing and dining for Phase 2, should they be eligible to return, and for Spring.”
Students who require on-campus housing for an extenuating circumstance will have the ability to submit a request for approval to live in a dorm, similar to what was done during this past spring semester when students were abruptly sent home following their spring break. Those who wish to apply can do so here.
The university is also offering a fully online option for all undergraduate students on all campuses, according to the statement. Graduate students who wish to move their classes online will be “accommodated to the greatest extent possible,” the statement says.
Medical students in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (HCOM) are the only exception — HCOM students began a hybrid approach in July, which will continue through fall semester.
The administration will also modify the OHIO CARES Relief Fund to provide money to eligible students in the fall until funds expire to help them pay for amenities like textbooks and housing. OU is committing an additional $5 million to assist more undergraduate students in need of additional financial aid.
OU previously announced that on-campus activities will come to a halt on Nov. 20, the day Thanksgiving break begins, and classes will be moved online for the remaining two weeks of the semester. That means most students will only be on campus this fall for eight weeks if in-person classes resume at the end of September as planned.
OU’s decision to temporarily move most class online came days after Miami University announced that classes would begin online for fall semester, after previously planning for an in-person start. Miami similarly plans to bring students back to campus through a phased-in approach starting Sept. 14.
The Ohio University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demanded in a statement last week that the university reverse its plans and immediately move most classes online for at least the entirety of the upcoming academic year, as many faculty members waited in distress for the return of in-person classes.
That statement was released following a Zoom meeting held a few weeks ago that was hosted by the OU AAUP and drew more than 100 OU professors.
Many who attended that meeting said they felt uninformed of the policies and procedures the university had in place to ensure the protection of their personal health. Others expressed anxiety and discomfort at the then-likely prospect of teaching in-person classes to thousands of undergraduate students.
Experts including Winfried Just, an OU professor who studies the transmission of infectious diseases, Dr. James Gaskell, health commissioner for the Athens City-County Health Department, and health department Administrator Jack Pepper had all previously communicated a great sense of unease concerning students’ return to town.
The vast majority 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.
For a period of time, cases in the county surged, but they have largely come under control in recent days. Active cases of the virus are mostly down and recovered cases have recently skyrocketed. Though, cases statewide have continued to rapidly rise throughout July. Ohio broke its record Thursday for the largest single-day increase in cases since the pandemic began back in March.
As of Friday, Athens County is classified as a Level 2 county under the state’s Public Health Advisory Alert System, denoting “increased exposure and spread.”
Athens County two weeks ago, however, was 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.
This story has since been updated to include the most recent information and to add further context.