On Monday, President Sean Decatur announced that sophomores, juniors and seniors are invited to study on campus for in-person instruction this spring, while first years will study remotely.
“2020 has tested us like no other,” Decatur wrote in the announcement. “Our choice to keep the density of campus low this fall has served the Kenyon community well, and given the current trajectory of the pandemic we will continue this approach for the spring semester.”
The College’s initial July announcement stated that, should it remain unsafe to invite all students back to campus, only juniors and seniors would be invited back to the Hill. Given the low case count this semester, the College has determined the situation safe enough for three classes — as opposed to two — to return to campus.
The decision comes as Kenyon concluded its quiet period just last week, which went into effect after the Village saw increased levels of COVID-19 in its wastewater. However, the College ended this moderate alert status on Oct. 29, after only one student tested positive for the virus on Oct. 23. The College also tested employees last week for the first time since the start of the semester, and thus far no employees have tested positive.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have continued to rise nationwide, with the United States reporting over 100,000 daily cases for the first time Wednesday. Decatur acknowledged that the current plan would be subject to change in light of the precarious nature of the pandemic. “At this stage, it is as firm as anything in 2020 can be,” he said.
In response to student concerns about campus density, Decatur explained that the junior and senior classes are, on average, significantly smaller than the sophomore and first-year classes. “If you add together the juniors and seniors, you have about 800-something students that would be expected back on campus this [spring] semester,” Decatur said in an interview with the Collegian.
Decatur noted that this discrepancy allows space for almost an entire additional class on campus. According to him, there are roughly 1,100 students on campus this semester. He estimated that the total number of students on campus in the spring would be between 1,200 and 1,300, an increase of at least 100 students from the fall semester.
The decision came as a surprise to students — juniors and seniors especially — many of whom voiced their concern on social media. Not only did many find it unfair to grant sophomores the entire year on campus, but students also worried about the potential health risks posed by additional students’ presence on campus.
“I can’t wait to have a higher chance of contracting the virus when working on my capstone thesis next semester because the current conditions in Ohio and the rest of the country are truly reassuring,” Jamie Sussman ’21 wrote sarcastically in a comment on Kenyon’s Facebook post. He added that he trusts Kenyon’s current de-densification plan. “Lets not alter [that plan] and impact the health of everyone on campus. Numbers and population matter,” Sussman said.
Zoë Packel ’22 shared Sussman’s concerns. “Given the evidence that COVID cases, especially in Ohio, are increasing daily, it feels really irresponsible of the [administration] to make the decision to bring more students back to campus,” she wrote in a message to the Collegian, adding that upperclass students, who have been studying remotely since March, want to return to an environment that is “as safe and cautious as possible.”
According to Decatur, the College’s ability to safely invite more students back to the Hill this spring is largely due to its new plan for housing: Instead of putting all students in single rooms, it will house apartments at their full capacity, with students living in “pods,” which are small groups of students who live in the same space and only interact with each other. In the News Bulletin, Decatur mentioned that the idea for “pods” came from other institutions who had successfully used them.
Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 explained that the decision to invite additional students back to campus was based, in part, on what the College has learned from this fall semester.
“Ultimately, we had slightly more residence hall capacity in the fall than we had anticipated,” Bonham wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Based on conversations with local public health experts, we also concluded that increasing apartment occupancy would not compromise the health and safety of our students.” Later, she added that, “we believe that we can comfortably handle what will amount to an additional 300 or so students on campus.”
Sharing his thoughts about the College’s plan for spring 2021, Director of Cox Health and Counseling Center Chris Smith wrote in an email to the Collegian that he is “cautiously optimistic,” referencing the success of the fall semester. “Strategies that were successful will likely be repeated and strategies that present opportunities for improvement will likely be amended,” he said. “Kenyon College will share our operational plans with Knox Public Health and welcome their continued guidance and partnership.”
First-year students can petition to remain on campus for the spring semester, according to Dean of Students Robin Hart Ruthenbeck. With limited space available, the College will only consider those with “highly compelling situations,” she said. Petitions are due on Nov. 9. All international students have been invited back for the spring, and do not need to petition.
Additionally, the College announced that spring off-campus study will be suspended. As per NCAC’s announcement, intercollegiate athletics are also cancelled through the winter season. Though the College remains optimistic about the possibility of an in-person Commencement ceremony on May 22, 2021 as scheduled, Decatur said the need for flexibility as the situation continues to unfold.