COVID-19 Outbreak Continues, College Moves to Remote Campus

Faculty+and+staff+distributed+packing+boxes+to+students+in+the+Root+Room+in+Carnegie+Building+beginning+Friday+morning.+Students+in+College+housing+are+required+to+vacate+campus+by+Monday+at+noon.+Box+distribution+will+continue+9+a.m.+%E2%80%93+4+p.m.+on+both+Saturday+and+Sunday.

Nathan Carpenter

Faculty and staff distributed packing boxes to students in the Root Room in Carnegie Building beginning Friday morning. Students in College housing are required to vacate campus by Monday at noon. Box distribution will continue 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.

In an email sent to the campus community Thursday afternoon, President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced that today will be the last day of classes prior to spring break and that students should plan to leave campus by noon on Monday, March 16. The decision is meant to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus — known as COVID-19 — following the discovery of five confirmed cases in nearby Cuyahoga, Stark, and Trumbull Counties.

Visualization by Katie Lucey, News Editor
Schools around the country announced that they would be moving from in person classes to online this past week

Students should not expect to return to campus for the remainder of the semester, with some exceptions. According to President Ambar, most international students will remain on campus due to challenges with international travel, but still need to submit a petition in order to do so. All domestic students who hope to remain on campus after Monday at noon must also petition. Students will hear back about their petitions on a rolling basis, and by 10 a.m. Saturday morning at the latest, according to an email sent Thursday afternoon by Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo.

According to Raimondo, administrators have yet to finalize their logistical plan for the small number of students that will remain in College housing.

“We’re trying to focus on the decisions that we have to make [now],” Raimondo said. “I think it’s likely that we will consider relocating people to apartment-style housing so they have the option of using a kitchen if they prefer. … That will depend on the assessment of what housing is available and the condition of houses.”

Raimondo also confirmed that the College will not issue any recommendations or directives to students living in off-campus housing in Oberlin.

Given the general absence of students on campus, classes will be conducted remotely when the semester resumes after spring break. Faculty are being trained in best practices for moving their courses to a digital platform.

For courses that cannot easily be converted, namely some lab and performance arts courses, faculty will truncate the course, and students will receive academic credit for the first module. In order to ensure that students stay on track to graduate, faculty are being encouraged to develop second-module courses.

The relatively low figure of confirmed cases in Ohio might be due to limited testing capacity; however, the Ohio Department of Health announced on Thursday its estimates that approximately one percent of Ohio’s population, or 100,000 people, is currently infected with COVID-19.

On Monday, after the first three cases were discovered in Cuyahoga County, Governor Mike DeWine declared a statewide state of emergency. The following day, he recommended that Ohio colleges and universities consider moving their classes online. By Thursday, schools across the state — including The Ohio State University and The University of Dayton — had announced that they would move to remote classes.

As of publication, more than 128,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported globally, resulting in more than 4,700 deaths. Within the United States, more than 1,600 cases have been confirmed, including 40 deaths. The World Health Organization officially declared the crisis a pandemic on Wednesday.

Rapidly-Evolving Timeline

Oberlin’s contingency plan underwent significant changes over the course of the week as the administration reacted to a rapidly-evolving health crisis.

On Tuesday afternoon, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka presented a mitigation plan to College faculty and staff. He emphasized that Oberlin would remain open and that faculty would continue to work, but that they should prepare to move their classes to Zoom, a video conferencing platform, following spring break. This information was relayed to students later that evening via an email signed by President Ambar.

Raimondo followed up with a Wednesday evening email to students with specific instructions about how to proceed regarding spring break and to prepare for the possibility of a remote campus. She advised students to spend Thursday and Friday, March 19–20 packing up their living spaces using boxes provided by the College, and to be prepared to depart campus by noon on Saturday, March 21.

Raimondo also announced that students who would like to remain on campus after the departure deadline must submit a digital petition in order to do so. While the timeline has changed since Raimondo’s initial email, the petition to stay on campus remains active.

On Thursday afternoon, under the guidance of governmental health agencies, the administration announced its plans to move all courses online for the remainder of the semester and require students to leave campus. In an early afternoon meeting with faculty, Kamitsuka cited the significant increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases across the country since the original Tuesday announcement as a reason for the administration’s evolving plan.

General Lorain County Outlook

There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lorain County. Still, according to Dave Covell, Lorain County health commissioner, residents should remain vigilant and follow updates from his office, the Ohio Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updates specific to the county can be found at www.loraincountyhealth.com.

Covell added that initially Ohio was not a high-priority area due to the fact that passengers from China, where the outbreak began, were not traveling directly into the state. Now, given the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, Ohio will be monitored more closely over the coming weeks.

According to Interim Chief of Staff David Hertz, the College’s decision to send students home early and suspend in-person classes for the remainder of the semester was made with these recent developments in mind and in close collaboration with Covell’s office.

“[Lorain County Public Health] said because of the shift to community spread, … they would support our decision to move forward, and it made sense for us to take this action,” Hertz said.

Covell further advised students to be mindful while making spring break travel plans. Both the College and government agencies are advising against non-essential international travel. Covell added that, should residents choose to travel internationally, they should be prepared to be quarantined upon their return.

“Anyone coming back from a high-risk area is going to get screened when they come back into this country, and they’ll probably be in quarantine for two weeks,” he said.

Leaving Campus

President Ambar’s Thursday email provided instructions for how students should plan to leave campus by noon on Monday. Only students that have received approval from the College to stay on campus due to “extraordinary circumstances” will be allowed to remain.

According to Raimondo, such exemptions for extraordinary circumstances extend to international students who could encounter challenges with their visas, as well as to students with housing insecurity or those who would potentially be unsafe if they left campus.

“The primary goal is to de-densify campus as quickly as possible, but we recognize that for some students, their Oberlin housing may be the only housing they have access to, or if they have family related housing, there may be safety issues there,” Raimondo said. “We certainly want to be mindful of both of those.”

Raimondo added that students who face financial challenges in leaving campus would not qualify to remain in College housing on the basis of the financial challenges alone. She encouraged students to make their financial concerns known through a separate form emailed to students.

“We are intending to identify students for whom travel issues are a problem and work with them,” Raimondo said. “In other words, somebody who doesn’t have a plane ticket, doesn’t have a plan, we’re going to find a way to help them [find] a way to travel and a way to pay for it before they have to leave their housing.”

After students move out by noon, all campus facilities — including the libraries and athletic facilities — will close to students, but faculty and staff will still have access to them, according to information shared by Kamitsuka at the Thursday afternoon faculty meeting.

President Ambar emphasized that the College’s plans for the transition are still in flux.

“We don’t know yet how we might be able to support students,” President Ambar said. “What I would encourage students to do is to make those concerns known to the Dean of Students, and as we find our way through the complexities we’ll try to figure out what our options are.”

She acknowledged that some students will face challenges as a result of the decision to empty campus.

“This is going to impact people in unequal ways,” President Ambar said. “So the solutions themselves are necessarily going to be unequal. We should just probably say that up front because we’re probably not going to be able to treat everybody the same, because everybody’s situation is going to be different.”

Raimondo said that the College has not yet decided how to proceed with regard to potential reimbursements for room and board costs.

“There have been no final determinations yet,” Raimondo said. “Obviously, there are significant challenges to the College budget created by this whole situation, but we’re also mindful of the implications for folks who pay for housing and dining that they may not be using now. We want to make sure that we take a good, hard look at that to see what seems fair and possible. I would [ask students to] be patient and give us a moment to figure it out, [and] we’ll be able to update people shortly.”

Students who need to vacate their campus housing by Monday can access packing boxes in the Root Room in Carnegie Building through the weekend. Details about box policies and access times can be found in Raimondo’s Thursday email to students.

Remote Learning

According to President Ambar, the decision to move to remote learning for the remainder of the semester was made in an attempt to provide clarity to the campus community, and also to acknowledge that the College did not have a viable path to safely bring students back to campus after the break.

“That’s what really drove the decision to make the decision now, so that there was clarity for all of us, despite the fact that we all knew how painful that [decision] would be,” President Ambar said. “It’s one of the harder decisions that I [have] had to make in my time in these types of roles.”

During his presentations to College faculty throughout the week, Kamitsuka acknowledged that the transition to digital classrooms would not be easy, and that some courses — such as those with laboratory or performance components — would not translate well to an online format. Kamitsuka discussed truncating these courses into half-credit, first module-only classes.

Despite the potential for specific courses to be cut short, President Ambar said that her administration understands the importance of students staying on track to graduate.

“What we don’t want to happen for students is that this disruption itself be the factor that keeps them from graduating — either because they can’t complete their coursework or because they’re limited in their ability to connect with their faculty,” President Ambar said. “We want to try to create the types of rules and framework so that we help students graduate, right? I don’t know what all those things will be, but that’s the mindset.”

In order to help students continue to complete their academic requirements, faculty are being called upon to design second-module courses focused on studying COVID-19 from different angles and across different disciplines. According to President Ambar, the plan to encourage faculty to study the pandemic arose from conversations with Kamitsuka about how Oberlin could rise to the challenges of the moment.

“We began to think about, ‘Well, what is Oberlin?’” President Ambar said. “It’s about rigor. It’s about taking complex problems and breaking them down into the component parts and making them more than the sum of their parts. … And so we said, ‘Is there a way to think about this particular virus [across] all the different academic disciplines?’”

The second-module courses have yet to be announced, and more information regarding options for students whose other courses may be cut short will be available soon. In an additional attempt to support students academically through the transition, the deadline both to declare the pass-or-no-pass option and withdraw from a full-semester course has been extended to the end of the semester.

Raimondo added that the College is planning to work with students who may face connectivity difficulties participating in digital classes. Students should register their concerns with the Dean of Students’ office via the form emailed by Raimondo, and solutions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

Admissions

The Office of Admissions is also taking steps to adjust its spring recruitment plan in light of the COVID-19 spread. The school’s primary admitted students event, All Roads Lead to Oberlin, has been canceled. The three All Roads weekends, which typically include a series of campus events and overnight visits, were scheduled to take place April 9–10, 16–17, and 23–24.

In addition to the All Roads cancelation, a visit event for high school juniors that had been scheduled for today was canceled.

Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Manuel Carballo expressed that admissions offices at colleges and universities across the country are facing similar challenges, calling adjusting admissions strategies in response to the health crisis, “a shared pain across higher ed.”

According to Carballo, Admissions is currently developing alternative digital recruitment strategies in collaboration with other campus offices and organizations. As of Thursday morning, his plan was to partner with student workers in Admissions and Communications to spend next week developing digital tour materials. It is not currently clear how this plan will proceed with students now being required to depart campus Monday.

Carballo said that one of the key challenges of a digital recruitment strategy is recreating the intangible moments and interactions that prospective students experience during campus visits.

“The challenge, then, is, how do you then get these more informal hang out groups where it’s not just going to be an hour of, ‘Let’s talk about housing and how that works,’ but [instead] ‘Who are you, what are you wearing, are we listening to the same kind of music, and am I going to be excited to join that community?’” he said.

For now, Carballo is optimistic that the COVID-19 outbreak will not have an outsized impact on Oberlin’s admissions as compared to peer institutions.

“I think we’re all going to have our version of [what we’re] worried about,” he said. “But again, if it was a local Oberlin pandemic where it was just us and everybody else was fine, I’d be a lot more stressed at this point. It’s more [that] we’re all looking at making these admitted student programs hybrid in some way.”

President Ambar acknowledged that moving the campus visit experience online could have ripple effects across the institution in the wake of its structural budget deficit.

“It’s actually a pretty daunting thing, because we know that the campus visit makes such a big difference,” President Ambar said. “It’s not just daunting because [you need] to totally reshape your admissions strategy. It’s also daunting because … we need to make our enrollment targets.”

Athletics

Student athletes will be asked to leave campus at the same time as other students. All athletic practices and competitions for the remainder of the semester are canceled. Additionally, athletic facilities will be closed to students beginning Monday, March 16 at noon. These facilities will remain open to faculty and staff.

More detailed information pertaining to Athletics is covered in the Sports section.

Student Response

Some students have expressed concerns over the potential financial and logistical implications of the College’s rapid dismissal strategy, which occurred on a much shorter timeline than was initially announced Tuesday. Students quickly organized ways to help each other in the face of mounting uncertainty.

On Tuesday, students began circulating a mutual aid spreadsheet with separate tabs for food, housing, storage, and transportation needs, among other asks and offers.

Students created an additional spreadsheet to organize rideshares to the Lorain County Board of Elections in advance of the Ohio primary election on Tuesday, March 17 — one day after the majority of students will need to leave campus. In order to vote early, students must present either identification issued by the state of Ohio or provide the last four digits of their Social Security number. It is not necessary to present the utility bill issued by the College to vote early.

Many graduating students feel particularly disheartened about the situation, and have expressed disappointment over the abrupt end to their time on campus on social media. President Ambar said she is mindful of the impact that the transition to a remote campus will have on students.

“I want students to know that I really understand why they’re sad, because — particularly for the seniors — it’s just disrupting what is a really special time,” she said.

President Ambar added that senior administration has not made any final decisions concerning whether and in what form Oberlin will move forward with commencement ceremonies.

Looking Ahead

While national COVID-19 testing capabilities remain limited, capacity is growing and updates are coming on a daily basis. On Thursday, news broke that the Cleveland Clinic had made significant progress in developing stronger testing capabilities.

According to Tom Mihaljevic, CEO and president of Cleveland Clinic, the ability to test on-site will help local cases to be diagnosed more quickly. Still, given the anticipated volume of patients, those with no symptoms will not be tested, even if they potentially have been exposed to the virus.

Despite potential breakthroughs in testing capability, the rate of the outbreak continues to grow rapidly across the country and world. According to the CDC, there is currently no COVID-19 vaccine or drug available.

President Ambar is hopeful that, despite the difficulty of the present moment and the sadness of many students — particularly graduates having their semester cut short — some silver linings will emerge. She spoke about meeting older alumni who shared tragic and traumatic experiences during their time on campus, and emphasized the bond that facing the unknown and frightening can create, even years later.

“There’s a part of me that, while I’m really sad about what this will mean for students [in their] second semester senior year, I also know that it’s going to shift some things for them that will be profound, and based on my experience, this shift will be profound in really positive ways,” President Ambar said. “What I would ask students to do, even in their sadness about it, is to begin — once they can put that sadness in the right place — to try to find what is going to be deeply moving [toward] the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

To stay updated on the evolving COVID-19 situation nationally, students and community members can monitor updates from the