Viral video of Miami party shines light on Oxford as classes prepare to start

Video of Miami University students having an off-campus party despite positive tests for coronavirus received national attention.

A national spotlight recently shone uncomfortably bright on Miami University, and the well-publicized incident is now casting a shadow of caution over both the school and Oxford community as classes open Monday.

Video of police responding to an off-campus student party, which showed an officer reacting with surprise when the host said he had tested positive for coronavirus and was supposed to be in quarantine, got national attention as an example of the struggle colleges have in keeping students outside of campus safe from the virus.

But in some ways, local officials said, the incident now serves as a cautionary tale on how not to behave.

Miami officials point to their multi-front strategy – requiring all returning students to take a coronavirus test, temperature screenings before moving into residence halls this week, staggered move-in days, masks and social distancing – as among the reasons the school’s coronavirus positive test rates have leveled off in recent days.

Miami’s main Oxford campus and regional campuses in Hamilton and Middletown start in-person classes Monday but are also offering many online for students in a hybrid scheduling strategy designed to keep classrooms from overcrowding and reducing social distancing.

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After seeing the police video of the that went viral earlier this month of the ill-advised, off-campus house party, Oxford City Manager Douglas Elliott said, “I was disappointed, as were many residents in Oxford.”

Some other colleges nationwide have had similar incidents, said Elliott, and “we’re not immune to that.”

He added, however, there is recent cause for optimism with the slowing of the number of Miami students testing positive for the coronavirus just before the start of classes.

“A week ago, I was more concerned than I am now. No one has a crystal ball, but we hope the numbers continue to go down,” said Elliott.

‘We want to keep this town open’

When the Oxford Police officer approached an afternoon house party near the campus on Sept. 5, he didn’t expect to hear what he did from a student living there who told him of his recent positive test for coronavirus and being ordered into self-quarantine.

“You have other people here and you tested positive for COVID – do you see the problem?” asked the officer on the video.

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“You’re not quarantining if you are mixing with other people. This is a problem,” he told the student, before citing him for quarantine violation.

“We want to keep this town open,” the officer said.

Despite the high-profile party incident, Oxford police Lt. Lara Fening said returning students living off-campus and on are overall behaving as they should during a pandemic.

“For the most part … the students are acting quite responsibly,” said Fening, who also lives in the city. “The other night I was out and I was surprised to see so many students wearing masks."

Thousands of the main campus' usual 16,000 have chosen Miami’s option of learning entirely from their homes during the first semester. With fewer students overall and the mandated restrictions on gatherings, masks requirements and social distancing, it’s a back-to-school season never-before-seen in the Oxford community, said Fening.

“It’s like a cloak has fallen over the town,” she said of the usually boisterous, back-to-school atmosphere. “It’s a sort of quiet like church with only maybe some people sitting on porches. It’s really slowed down.”

That’s the way it needs to be, said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in his most recent press conference in which he cited the off-campus behavior of some students as a major contributor to the continued increases in positive coronavirus test totals.

“The schools are doing a good job but what we continue to see from all universities is problems from the off-campus and off-campus activities,” DeWine said Thursday.

Miami officials said about 5,000 students decided to return to live in main campus residence halls for a modified and shortened first semester. Normally, 8,500 students live in campus dorms.

Miami officials declined to comment on the student party, citing federal student privacy laws, but did note “any Miami University student who violates a quarantine or isolation order or hosts a large gathering that violates the city of Oxford mass gathering ordinance will face disciplinary action under our code of student conduct.”

Any resident found in violation could face a fine up to $500.

“We take these matters most seriously, and students can face suspension or dismissal for these types of violations,” said Miami University Spokeswoman Carole Johnson.

Johnson pointed to Miami’s “dashboard,” updated with the latest numbers of students and school staffers who have tested positive, as one of the many tools being used by the university to monitor and suppress increases in the frequency of coronavirus.

The staggered move-in days during last week was another unique approach for the school, which enrolls nearly 20,000 students total in Oxford and its regional campuses.

“We are pleased with the move-in process that welcomed about 5,000 students back to our on-campus residence halls,” said Johnson.

“Miami has taken a different and more comprehensive approach to COVID-19 testing. We tested our on-campus residential students as they arrived and are reporting a low positive rate — a total of 17 positives out of 1,850 tests as of Thursday, Sept. 17. And Miami is regularly testing off-campus students using wide-net and surveillance testing. We are reporting those numbers publicly on our website,” she said.

“We have painted a clear picture of the impact COVID-19 has had on our community because of our extensive testing. The health and safety of our campus community is our top priority, and we will continue to monitor and adjust as needed throughout the remainder of the semester,” said Johnson.

CONTINUING COVERAGE

The Journal-News has closely followed the status of coronavirus in Butler County for six months and Miami University’s affect on the county’s cases since students returned to the city. We have reporters in our communities talking every day with officials about what’s happening with the coronavirus and what residents should know.

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