University moves forward with plan to re-open campus

Miami+freshman+Maxwell+Kemper+at+his+family%E2%80%99s+home+in+Miamisburg

Photo by Maxwell Kemper

Miami freshman Maxwell Kemper at his family’s home in Miamisburg, where he has been attending class virtually, since the start of the semester on Aug. 15. He plans to move into a campus dormitory this coming week, and begin taking classes in person Sept. 21

By Blake Boyd

Miami University will reopen the campus on Sept. 14 and re-start face-to-face classes Sept. 21, despite continued concerns over the rising number of COVID-19 cases, University President Gregory Crawford announced Wednesday.

Miami surpassed 1,000 cases of COVID-19 Sept. 5, and according to the latest update from the Butler County General Health District, more than 11% of students living in Oxford had contracted the virus, as of Sept.10.

Campus housing has been mostly empty since mid-March, but will reopen for students on Sept.14
Campus dorms, mostly empty since mid-March, are scheduled to reopen for students  Sept. 14.  Photo by Miami University

Jennifer Bailer, Butler County health commissioner, issued a press release on Thursday about the university’s plan to re-open. “It is the role of the local health district to consult, advise, and share data with universities in order to ensure that information needed to make health-informed decisions is available,” Bailer said in the release. “All decisions as to how to use health information are made by the University itself. It is not public health’s role to tell a university what they must do.”

Bailer said that, while Miami’s case count continues to rise, there has been a downward trend in new cases. Bailer said there have been no hospitalizations or complications among the student population, and that her department is working to help Oxford protect its at-risk groups, such as senior citizens and others with underlying medical conditions. 

“For public health, keeping our most vulnerable citizens safe is our highest priority,” Bailer said in the release. “Many efforts are underway with the City of Oxford, and in collaboration with community organizations to keep COVID-19 at bay in our high-risk groups.”

According to Crawford’s announcement, which was emailed to all students and employees, the decision to reopen was made after lengthy consideration of the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff.

“(The decision) is an expression of confidence in our campus community and is grounded in our belief that we can still offer a rich campus experience with the proper protocols and measures in place,” the email said.

Miami’s on-campus population will be about 40% lower than usual this semester, with some students opting to continue remote instruction or live off-campus. Miami is giving students the option of returning to campus as planned, taking the entire semester remotely, or delaying their return to the residence halls until Oct. 3-4, while taking classes remotely until then, according to the announcement. Students have until Sept. 18 to make their choice.

In emails sent to students who will be moving into dorms, Jayne Brownell, Miami’s vice president for student life, said students will be required to be tested for COVID-19 upon arriving on campus. The email said unless students have an early move-in scheduled, they will be able to do drive-up testing in the Millett Hall parking lot. Students who move in earlier than Sept. 14, will be tested at Harris Hall.

The emails also outline some general guidelines, and rules to help students protect themselves and others against the spread of COVID-19:

  • Participating in Miami’s Healthy Together wide-net and surveillance testing program
  • Completing a self-reporting form if a student tests positive for COVID-19.
  • Completing a mobile self-assessment COVID-19 test each morning.
  • Signing Miami’s Healthy Together Pledge, a contract between the university and students, promising participation in responsible and healthy behavior to mitigate potential risk.
  • Moving into a new room to quarantine if contact tracing determines the student has been in close contact with someone who is infected with COVID-19. 
  • Having a go-bag ready if it’s decided a student must quickly move to an on-campus quarantine or isolation location.
  • Being prepared to be asked to move dorm rooms if it is determined that Miami must consolidate its uninfected students to make more room for quarantine dorms.
  • Being prepared to shelter in place for a certain amount of time even if Miami must return to fully remote instruction.

Brownell also addressed the public health risks the new influx of students could have on the city. “We are in a small town, and can quickly overwhelm the resources needed to follow up with cases,” Brownell wrote in the email to students who will be moving in. “There may come a time when our public health officials determine that the health risks to the community are too great to remain together.” 

This chart tracks the number of positive COVID-19 tests at Miami since the beginning of the semester in August. Chart by Blake Boyd

Jessica Greene, Oxford’s assistant city manager, said the city expects about 4,000 more students to return to town in addition to the approximately 8,000 who are in Oxford living off-campus. Greene said Oxford expects about a 20% decrease in the total student population compared to a normal year. 

Greene said local businesses have worked with the city and health department to create COVID-friendly plans to reduce the risk of infection in those establishments.

“Our businesses have been preparing — they’ve had this period of time where we’ve had the off-campus students and I think they’ve responded well,” Greene said. “With an increased population, you’re going to see businesses doing more of what they’re already doing. And I think now it’s really going to be a time for some of our establishments to see if their plans actually work and then adapt as necessary.”

In Crawford’s announcement, he addressed the possibility community members could be worried about Miami’s return to campus and local case numbers. 

I wish to convey to our community members that the majority of our students are here in Oxford, living in off-campus arrangements, regardless of whether instruction is all remote or not,” Crawford said in the email.

“By welcoming our students into classrooms and offering different campus experiences – with robust testing, rules about gatherings and facial coverings, and enforcement – we will be positioned to monitor the environment and apply containment strategies or change direction. Given that the majority of our students are currently living in Oxford, we believe it will be better for everyone if our students feel connected to campus and community rather than apart from it.”

Earlier this summer, Miami rescheduled the semester to end classes before Thanksgiving break to prevent the likelihood of students traveling out of town and bringing new cases of COVID-19 back to Oxford. In-person instruction will end Nov. 26 and the campus will close Nov. 28.