COLUMBUS, Ohio – The familiar thud of a bass ripped through front-porch speakers on a recent Friday night in the University District, where students had begun returning to apartments and houses surrounding Ohio State University’s campus. The music wafted over the clicking of pingpong balls, muffling the unmasked conversations and laughter of students reunited with friends on the cusp of another unprecedented semester.
A few hours earlier, the university wrapped up its daily campus move-in, checking students into residence halls under a regimented new system of one-hour time slots spread over 12 days to limit crowding and encourage physical distancing. The university will rely on symptom tracking and mass testing to help detect even a hint of an outbreak in residence halls, campus health officials said.
Large universities resuming in-person operations this fall have rewritten campus protocols and procedures, reinvented the move-in process and developed detailed testing protocols in an effort to operate as safely as possible during the coronavirus pandemic.
But when more than 65% of students live outside university housing, how does a place such as Ohio State keep the virus from entering campus after a Friday night party?
“You want to be safe for, like, your relatives and everyone, but we also want to enjoy our senior year, too, so it’s kind of just straddling the line of being safe but still having fun,” Ohio State senior A.C. Secrest said as he sat with his roommates on the front porch of his off-campus house, where neighboring yards were littered with discarded red cups and emptied beer cans.
Classes at Ohio State are set to begin Tuesday, using a hybrid model of in-person and online classes; large universities in other states called off in-person instruction, asking students to stay home.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill shut down in-person instruction Monday, a week into the semester, after dozens of students tested positive for the coronavirus in residence halls and a fraternity house. The University of Notre Dame announced a two-week suspension of in-person classes Tuesday after a surge of cases. Michigan State University asked undergraduates to stay home and take classes remotely.
Columbus Public Health Commissioner Mysheika Roberts said she supports Ohio State’s ”robust” plans to welcome students back to campus and its infection control measures. Those include required use of face masks in indoor and outdoor settings, participation in daily health checks, health and safety training and mandatory COVID-19 testing for students living on campus and random surveillance testing for others.
The city has yet to trace any COVID-19 outbreaks to the university area or student activity or gatherings in particular, and Roberts said city and state orders that bars cut off alcohol sales at 10 p.m. will help curb the spread of the virus when the semester begins.
Still, by Friday evening, the university had opened “dozens” of student disciplinary cases stemming from parties that officials said failed to follow social distancing rules.
Striking a balance between feeling untouchable, the urge to be with friends and the need to take precautions is difficult for some students.
“The hardest part for most students is, like, social life,” Kaia Erickson, a junior nursing major, said. “Just finding that balance between hanging out with friends while also social distancing.”
Students are going to party, said Matt Benge, a senior actuarial science major.
“But I think I can see it dying down pretty quick, like if action was taken by the university,” he said. “There’s definitely gonna be a group of students that are just going to go as far as the university or the police will let them.”
Ohio State students are required to sign a pledge to follow university rules and health guidance. Students who fail to comply with safety requirements could be referred for university disciplinary action.
The pledge doesn’t make any specific references to parties or off-campus gatherings, but in an email to students, Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers reminded students not to gather in groups larger than 10 people, on or off campus.
The consequences of not following such guidelines can be “so dire,” she said, and not only for students.
“In addition to another interrupted semester, we also impact the entire community around us, the businesses and neighborhoods that are such an important part of our extended Buckeye family,” Shivers wrote. Repercussions include students losing their right to come to campus and student groups losing recognition by the university.
The dozens of disciplinary cases opened after parties this month are “likely to result in interim suspensions,” Shivers wrote in another notice to students.
“Perhaps knowing about the action we are taking will influence your decisions and prompt you to encourage others to take this situation seriously,” she warned. “And remember that this is all about more than the individual. We have one shot at this – responding to what so many of you asked for: an on-campus semester at Ohio State.”
Though Ohio State aimed to reduce campus density by limiting class sizes and residence hall occupancy, the tightly packed houses and apartments nearby are likely to be nearly as full as in a typical school year. In some off-campus housing, as many as 20 students can live under a single roof.
Justin Garland represents area landlords at the University Area Commission and is property manager for Buckeye Real Estate, which manages about 1,000 off-campus rental units. His company reworked its practices to limit contact with students as they move in and out. Garland said most tenants have kept their off-campus leases.
The University Area Commission reached out to city leaders to brainstorm approaches and guidelines about front-lawn and house parties, said commission President Doreen Uhas Sauer, but it’s not clear who would enforce such rules.
When they receive reports of large gatherings, Ohio State student life officials will work with Columbus Public Health and OSU police to “determine the best course of action for responding,” university spokesman Ben Johnson said in a written statement.
Students and the permanent residents living west of campus have “a great deal of respect for each other’s lifestyles,” Uhas Sauer said, but residents expressed concerns about student gatherings and living arrangements.
“Ohio State students may be making pledges to the university that in essence are about wearing masks in public and being observant and being good neighbors,” she said. “I have no doubt we have so many students who do the right thing, but still you kind of are concerned about this.”
More in this series: ‘Living in my car’? Classes online mean college students scramble for housing, Wi-Fi
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 college fall semester: Ohio State off-campus housing, parties