On Tuesday, Sept. 8, President Nellis informed the Ohio University community that over 7,200 students would be invited back to the Athens campus during Phase 2 of the university’s return to on-campus learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The 7,200 students invited back represent 31% of the undergraduate student body and 100% of OU graduate enrollment. The decision comes frightfully soon after Athens County shifted from a Level 1 “yellow” county to a Level 2 “orange” county just last week as cases have climbed since Phase 1 of the return began in August.
A phased return plan initially showed promise as a safe way to reignite campus operations, yet, in many ways, the decision to proceed with such a significant return to Athens seems imprudent – or what I call “willfully ignorant.” Indeed, OU seems to be living under a rock as the situation grows more dire not only in Athens but also nationally. The first piece of evidence for this willful ignorance is, of course, the fact that Athens County regained Level 2 status last week – “regained” because the county spent time in Level 3 previously during the summer.
After gaining control of the situation to return to Level 1, it is curious that the re-augmentation to Level 2 has directly coincided with the return of students during Phase 1. These two occurrences are not hard to link, but OU’s administration has apparently failed to connect the dots – or they have and are simply ignoring it, which would be willful ignorance on the part of the higher-ups.
Secondly, by promising to notify students regarding the status of Phase 2 on Sept. 8 – the very day after Labor Day – OU’s decision to bring 7,200 students back inherently does not account for the trend in cases after Labor Day Weekend, traditionally one of the most active party weekends throughout the year. Even this year, for those in Athens, it was fairly clear that social gatherings without following social guidelines were rampant during the holiday weekend – the perfect recipe for increased spread. However, because COVID-19 symptoms can take anywhere from 2 to 14 days to appear after exposure, making a decision on Phase 2 merely one day after the weekend willfully ignores any trends that might emerge from it.
So, let’s recap: OU is bringing back 7,200 students despite worsening circumstances in Athens County, and without considering any new trends after a notoriously festive weekend. The third reason that suggests OU is willfully making the wrong decision is that experiences of other universities across the nation have already shown us how this ends. It is not as if we have no prior knowledge upon which to rely here: Chico University, Gettysburg College, James Madison University, Notre Dame University, SUNY Oneonta, Temple University, University of North Carolina, West Virginia University… all institutions where substantial on-campus operations were initiated this fall and had to be canceled due to resulting major outbreaks. By refusing to learn from these establishments – some of whom have student bodies smaller than the 7,200 students OU is bringing back – once again, OU is demonstrating willful ignorance.
All of this would not be quite so bad, of course, if OU would take a more serious stance on enforcing the OHIO Pledge, which it is asking all students to sign. Such institutions as Denison University, Northeastern University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, Ohio State University, University of Illinois and many others are taking direct measures to suspend or otherwise punish students and organizations who do not follow public health guidelines. However, despite direct support from OU students, parents, staff and Athens residents, OU has taken no such direct action against offenders.
The reasons for OU’s willful ignorance on keeping people safe are only speculatory, ranging from wanting to prevent students from withdrawing or taking gap years to trying to milk every possible drop of tuition fees. In the end, my purposes here aren’t to speculate, but we absolutely need to demand an answer from President Nellis and the OU administration as to why OU is blatantly ignoring trends both in Athens and at other higher education establishments, all while not actively enforcing the pledge we’ve been asked to sign. Call it what you want – an honest mistake, willful ignorance, an act of contempt, blatant greed – but inviting 7,200 students to an impoverished Appalachian county that is not prepared to handle a major outbreak is, according to the facts, not a great decision.
Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.