BUCKHANNON – City officials last week said that while they’re prepared to help West Virginia Wesleyan College with its pandemic-related reopening plans, regulating the college community isn’t within the City of Buckhannon’s purview.
At its Thursday, July 16 Buckhannon City Council meeting, council members addressed a question from resident Timothy Reese regarding whether the city and college plan to collaborate to keep the community safe when students return next month.
Earlier this month, Wesleyan posted a detailed ‘Return to Campus’ plan outlining in detail the precautions and safety measures it plans to take. That plan can be viewed here.
Reese emailed the question to council members during the meeting, which was livestreamed via Channel 3 on its YouTube page.
“With consideration to the predicted fall wave of a COVID-19 infection along with the current spike of the first wave the United States is currently experiencing, and with the announcement that WVWC will be welcoming the fall attendance by students this year, are there any actions being discussed within the WVWC administration with our City Council regarding social distancing, group sizes, dorm occupation procedures, and house/fraternity parties with regard to this population infusion by persons outside our city, county, state and country?” Reese asked.
He also wanted to know if municipal law enforcement would be empowered to take action if they witnessed any behavior that infringed on public safety.
“Will our law enforcement be given authority to take action if reckless behavior is observed?” Reese asked.
City attorney Tom O’Neill said anyone with questions about the college’s safety plan should review or address questions to college officials.’
“I know they’ve devoted a great deal of time and attention on this, and specific questions must be answered by college officials,” O’Neill said. “We don’t regulate the college. We don’t regulate COVID-19 enforcement necessarily except given particularly egregious situations, which none have arisen in this town as of yet. I think most residents and most institutions have acted as responsibly as we might reasonably expect.”
O’Neill said law enforcement may only intervene if laws are being broken.
“With respect to the last part of the question – ‘will the city police be empowered to [take action if reckless behavior is observed? – law enforcement can only take action if laws are violated, and it is not appropriate for the city to treat members of the college community including students [any differently] than the rest of the community … or to single them out for any kind of enforcement action.”
O’Neill said while the city police have been on the lookout for problematic behavior, regulating public health-related matters is the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department’s responsibility.
Councilwoman Mary Albaugh recommended the city place a link to the college’s ‘Return to Campus’ plan on its COVID-19 information page, which information coordinator and grant writer Callie Cronin Sams has since done.
Mayor Robbie Skinner said the plan seems thorough.
“I’ve looked at the plan, and I know that they’ve spent a lot of time this summer working on every facet of it, from the academic side in the classroom to living in the dorms to the Greek life, to athletics,” Skinner said. “I would encourage those interested to check out wvwc.edu; it’s right in the middle of the page, and the link that shows the ‘Return to Campus’ plan.”
“Wesleyan’s really shown that they’re on the ball with this, and they’ve showed concern for the college as well as the community at large,” he added. “No one wants a collective outbreak in either the campus block or in our town. The college is an integral part of our town. We want the college to return but we want them to do it as safely as possible. So much of who we are is a college town, and I know our merchants and our restaurants and bars are missing the revenue that the college students bring in.”
Skinner said he had invited Wesleyan president Dr. Joel Thierstein to meet with city officials regarding any assistance the college might need in implementing the plan.
Albaugh said Buckhannon is Wesleyan students’ home, adding she’s more concerned about younger children than college-aged students returning to school safely amid a pandemic.
“It’s the younger children that I worry about going back to school and riding school buses and whatnot, not the college,” Albaugh said. “They live here, they shop here, they eat here. This is their home away from home, and they’ll be treated the same way they’ve always been treated.”
Councilman David Thomas said he wanted to clarify that the city isn’t endorsing the college’s plan by posting a link to it on their website; they’re simply sharing information.
“This is a moving target because things are very much in play,” Thomas said.
Read what academic dean Dr. James Moore had to say about Wesleyan’s safety measures here.