A growing number of Ohio colleges and universities intend to reopen their campuses this fall, after the coronavirus pandemic turned spring semesters upside down.
Otterbein, Ohio Wesleyan, Ohio Northern, Muskingum and Xavier universities are among the private Ohio colleges planning for a return to campus this fall. Among public schools, Miami University, Ohio University, Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo have said they are making plans to return as well.
Ohio colleges quickly shut down campus operations this spring due to coronavirus concerns and efforts to stop its spread. Students and educators pivoted to online instruction, and most students moved out of campus residence halls in a matter of weeks or even days.
Ohio Northern University announced eaerlier this month it will resume in-person, residential education in the fall. The private university in Ada has been utilizing remote learning since March 22.
“We are committed to providing our students an on-campus educational experience this fall, one that will look different in some ways, yet familiar with our tradition of delivering quality academic programs in a safe, rural environment,” ONU President Dan DiBiasio said in the statement.
ONU said it will open “in alignment with state government required safety measures and consistent with CDC guidelines and other community health safeguards.”
ONU noted it has a large number of faculty members who hold advanced degrees in medical and allied health fields and have the ability to provide expertise to safely prepare the campus for the fall semester.
The university will work to develop a safety program for students, faculty, and staff based on social distancing in classrooms, labs, residence halls, campus apartments, and other facilities. The plan will also utilize enhanced and frequent cleaning, increased access to hygiene products and PPE. They also will base the program on availability of frequent testing and contact tracing.
College presidents say it is important to let theie intentions known now.
“The primary motivation to let families and students know about this now is to really help them plan for the fall,” Muskingum President Sue Hasseler said.
The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking college decisions and statements nationwide about the fall semester. As of Friday, about 64% of colleges and universities were planning to return to campus this fall, according to the Chronicle’s tracker.
Both Muskingum’s Hasseler and Otterbein’s John Comerford feel students chose their universities in large part because of the campus experience.
“The on-campus experience is very, very important to students,” said Hasseler, pointing not only to what happens in the classroom but also opportunities to participate in the arts, campus leadership or athletics. “They are anxious to really be able to experience that whole opportunity.”
Comerford said by planning for a reopening in the fall, Otterbein can offer reassurances to current students who had signed up for that campus experience or prospective students who are seeking it.
“We wanted to signal to the incoming student class that it is going to be as close to the Otterbein they expect as we can make it,” he said.
The Ohio Department of Higher Education is working with Ohio colleges and universities as they develop fall education plans “that have the safety and health of students, faculty, and staff as the top priority,” Chancellor Randy Gardner said in a statement.
Some schools, such as Kent State University, said they have not yet made decisions regarding the fall but would prefer to resume in-person classes this upcoming academic year.
“The goal of this effort is to develop a plan that reflects the values and mission of Kent State and allows our students to be successful, our employees to thrive and our scholars to be innovative and creative, while at the same time protecting health and maintaining safety for everyone in our university community,” Interim Associate Provost Manfred Van Dulmen said in an email to the Kent State community on May 8.
Ohio State University has yet to make an announcement about the fall, but the state’s largest university expects to have a decision within the next month. As Ohio State leaders work through their choices, the current preference would be to reopen the campus this fall, said Gail Marsh, OSU’s chief strategy officer and chair of its post-pandemic operations task force.
“We’re so certain that the vibrancy and the energy on campus leads to student success and their growth over that time of their lives, and we’re very much looking forward to getting folks back on campus,” she said.
Ohio State’s post-pandemic task force is working on a phased return to campus operations. Some of those phases have begun, like expanding the operations that never fully stopped, such as campus transportation and cleaning efforts, Marsh said.
Next up, OSU plans to bring more research personnel back to campus in small increments beginning June 1. After that, the university would like to bring back some of the president’s cabinet to direct additional phased returns.
Ohio State also hopes to bring back some of its business operations, like the team that oversees the university’s iPad program, which would need to be in place if students return in the fall, Marsh said.
Campus environments where people congregate could represent some of the university’s biggest challenges in terms of reopening, Marsh said.
“The two that we’ve put especially a lot of attention toward are residence halls and dining halls, and classrooms … we have physical-distancing requirements that we’ll be putting in place if we’re able to return.”
It’s possible Ohio State could waive its campus living requirement, Marsh said. Ohio State currently requires all freshmen and sophomores at its Columbus campus to live in university housing.
At Ohio State and other colleges, leaders are noting classroom capacities and figuring out how class sizes might be adjusted or students relocated to other spaces in order to serve them while still spreading everyone out.
Universities are planning for all sorts of scenarios, even if they never come to pass.
“Seventy-five percent of ideas we’re discussing will never actually happen, but we want to have thought about this in advance,” said Otterbein’s Comerford. For example, the university is thinking about what it would mean if it could only have one student per residence hall room, he said.
Otterbein has been in touch with Westerville-area hotels in case the school should need overflow space or a place for ill students to self-isolate, he said.
Earlier this week, the chancellor of the California State University system said officials plan to cancel nearly all in-person classes for the fall. While Ohio college leaders are tracking decisions at universities across the country, they feel they are in a different situation than the California system.
The California State University system serves a large number of commuter students, Marsh said.
“That’s not our situation at all,” Marsh said of Ohio State.
A large state university system is also much different than the smaller university experience, in terms of the outbreak and health situations, Muskingum’s Hasseler said.
“Here in Muskingum County and actually in our area, we have benefited in some ways from rural isolation,” she said.