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Ohio State Students Worry About COVID-19 As Fall Semester Begins

Ohio State graduate student Lia Christine Dewey making signs for a protest.
Nick Evans
Ohio State graduate student Lia Christine Dewey making signs for a protest.

On a busy corner east of the Columbus campus, Hanna Glasscock and a handful of friends are sunbathing on a postage-stamp yard in front of their apartment. She’s not all that worried about her classes starting up again, and there’s a good reason.

“I just checked and it’s fully online now,” Glasscock says. “So I think most of us are going to be pretty much online for the most part.”

Glasscock and her friends say house parties are a much bigger concern than the classroom. Still, half a dozen of them are laying out close to one another, without masks.

However, Emma Murphy is adamant they're not part of the problem. She says they all live in the building, and keep their social circle to each other.

“It does look bad, it does look like it’s what you’d think of, like exactly what people say,” Murphy says, comparing them to pictures of much larger gatherings circulating online. “But like, we’re not going to all isolate to our apartments and not sit out in the yard together.”

The fall semester begins Tuesday at The Ohio State University, bringing students back into classes under a cloud of uncertainty. The university is trying to provide a version of the classic college experience for students who want it, as well as the classroom learning opportunities they say best serves them.

Some classes will be online, some in person, and others will be a blend of both. At the same time, Ohio State officials are distributing masks and rearranging classrooms, but it’s nowhere near certain those efforts will prevent another shutdown.

Earlier this month, the University of North Carolina had to close its flagship Chapel Hill campus less than a week after opening. The same happend at Notre Dame, and Michigan State called off plans for in-person classes at the last minute.

Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson says the university will crack down hard on unsafe behavior, like gatherings of more than 10 people.

“If you are an individual who hosts or attends a party that’s not healthy and safe, you will be referred to Student Conduct and you could face an interim suspension," Johnson says. "If you are a student organization that participates in such an event you could lose your status and your funding.”

Already, school officials say they issued 228 interim suspensions tied to off-campus parties.

Cases of COVID-19 are edging downward in Columbus from their peak in mid-July. But infections are most prevalent among people in their 20s, and health officials have been warning for months that cases will likely spike again in the fall.

Ohio State students Shireen Ahuja (left) and Kristen Orton.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Ohio State students Shireen Ahuja (left) and Kristen Orton.

Kristen Orton and Shireen Ahuja came back to campus because they found it difficult to focus on their work in houses packed with family members forced to work from home. Still, they’re both concerned about what they see around campus.

Orton worries the school might be forced to close.

“I think, at night, I see a lot of people going out to the bars, and that does, it stresses me out,” Orton says. “Because I could do everything right, but other people aren’t, and they could ruin it for me, and that just sucks.”

“Yeah I definitely agree,” Ahuja says. “Like going to bars and the bars even being open and advocating for people to come, I feel like that’s so wrong.”

While undergrads weigh the pros and cons in a health context, grad students are worried about their finances as well. The Graduate Student Labor Coalition is demanding the ability to work remotely in a drive-through protest Tuesday.

Over the weekend, a group of them met in a park to make signs. Lia Christine Dewey says she and other grad students are being asked to take on too much risk

“I didn’t sign up for that when I came to grad school. I didn’t sign up for that when I wanted to become a teacher, so I don’t appreciate being forced into this position,” she says. “You know, we don’t have any options right now, except to do this or leave grad school, and that’s not an option for me.”

On Instagram, an account called Unsafe at OSU is sharing anonymous notes from students and staffers. "I'm expected to prevent a virus, attend to my residents' wellbeing, bust parties, and still be a student," says one RA. "I feel hung out to dry by administration who don't face these consequences from their offices."

"Lectures that faculty teach are online, as are meetings TAs have with faculty," one graduate teaching assistant writes. "The TAs however have to teach in person. They're throwing students under the bus to allow opening."

In another post, a graduate teaching assistant says they haven’t seen the room where they’ll teach or received training on hygiene. They're scheduled to have a meeting on Thursday, but that meeting will be held online.

"Students should not feel safe stepping into our classrooms because teachers don't even know what we're doing," they write.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.