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Worry On Campus As Universities Suspend Classes For Coronavirus

Photo by Paige Pfleger/Side Effects Public Media.
Cartier Pitts and Michael Gomori worry about online classes after Ohio State suspends all in-person classes for the month of March.

Universities across the U.S. -- including Purdue, Indiana University, Ohio State and Iowa in the Midwest --have moved to suspend or cancel classes amid the spreading coronavirus.  This move has left some students scrambling. 

Right now is Ohio State’s spring break, so campus is mostly deserted. It may stay that way, too, as it’s unclear how many students will return after the announcement that all classes will be online-only until March 30.

“I was excited for all of two minutes and then I got worried,” says Cartier Pitts, while working out at the gym on campus.

Ohio State University this week joined the ranks of other colleges across the country that suspendedin-person classes due to the coronavirus. Classes, seminars and lectures will all be held online through at least March 30.

The decision came just hours after Ohio announcedthe first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Cuyahoga County. On Thursday, the state confirmeda fourth case in Stark County, and the first instance of community spread.

Kent State University, the University of Akron, University of Cincinnati, University of Dayton, Miami University and many other schoolsannounced they would suspend classes as well.

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Pitts is a senior studying arts management and dance, so her classes are usually discussion-based, or require in-person collaboration with other students.

“It’s not like you can skype in a dance rehearsal? I guess it just won’t happen,” Pitts says. “But most of the requirements for dance majors is to complete certain performances so I really don’t know how they’re going to fill that gap.”

Most of all, Pitts is worried about graduation – she is one of more than 10,000 students who planned to walk across the graduation stage this spring. She wonders if that event will be cancelled, too, and if these changes might impact her ability to graduate at all.

“It would be nice if the university could kind of help us out a little bit, and maybe pad our grades and pass us for the semester, or make sure that we don’t completely bomb and drop out," she says. "Because this was out of our control."

University President Michael Drake says they want to avoid cancelling graduation and other events by taking every precaution possible now, before COVID-19 officially hits Columbus.

“With our community of 100,000 people, and particularly when students are coming back from spring break, which they are now, the chances are that someone may have been exposed in either here in Ohio now or during their travels, and we wanted to be ready for them when they came back,” Drake said on WOSU’s All Sides With Ann Fisher.

Ohio State is not only the state’s largest university, but also Central Ohio’s largest employer. Unlike classes, Drake says dorms, food service, and the medical center will all continue as normal.

“We can’t avoid contact with other people entirely," Drake says. "What we want to do is to make that as safe as we can, and to mitigate, so we’ve done things like mandated enhanced cleaning of high touch areas.”

Fifth-year Antonio Phillips says that canceling in-person classes will hurt the Ohio State experience.

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By making the announcement during spring break, Drake said he hopes it will give faculty enough time to pivot to online.

"We’ve never done anything like having our whole curriculum as a distance learning platform or all online," Drake says, "and to do that in a week is a herculean task." 

Standing inside the campus gym, junior Michael Gomori worries about the university’s ability to do that on such short notice.

“It’s going to be a weird challenge, because those classes are formatted for in-person,” Gomori says. “Online class, that’s fine, they designed it for an online format, but these ones, I don’t know how it’s going to work out. I’m kind of nervous about it.”

Either way, it won’t be the Ohio State experience that students expect, says fifth-year Antonio Phillips.

“We definitely thought it was cool at first, because, wow we don’t have to get up,” Phillips says. “But at the same time, you’re paying not only for an education but also an experience. And with you not being able to literally be here, I feel like you’re missing out on that experience.”

Drake acknowledges that this will be a disruption for student life, but says when facing a global pandemic, it’s important to stay ahead of the curve.

The Ohio Department of Health makes the following recommendations to protect yourself from illness:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; dry hands with a clean towel or air dry hands. 
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable. 
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve when sneezing or coughing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. 
  • Stay home when you are sick. 
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.

Ohio's coronavirus call center is open to answer questions from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The hotline number is 1-833-4-ASK-ODH or 1-833-427-5634.

This is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. However, we recommend checking the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most recent numbers of COVID-19 cases.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.