GAMBIER — During a busy agenda Monday, Gambier Village councilmembers were asked to participate in a pilot program by a Kenyon College professor that would test village wastewater for traces of “dead” COVID-19 particles.

Councilmembers and Village Administrator RC Wise appeared receptive to the idea, which would take wastewater plant samples twice a week, pack them in ice, and ship them to a private company to test the level that dead, or “shed,” virus particles that exist in wastewater. The pilot program would last one month, and if deemed important, could be expanded once Kenyon students return, which is expected to be in late August.

Joan Slonczewski, a Kenyon professor of biology, said the tests cost $165 each but Kenyon would pay for them. She asked that the village consider paying the shipping cost. Still to be determined, Wise said, is who would be burdened with collecting the samples twice a week and shipping them, as the village does not presently have an employee who can be assigned for such work. The village contracts some of its wastewater services to Agri-Sludge Inc.

Slonczewski said showing the amount of dead COVID-19 particles “shed” into wastewater would be useful information; a high number of virus particles would indicate that the coronavirus exists in the community. Such a finding, tied to what she called “wastewater surveillance,” could determine when there is a surge of COVID-19 cases in the community. She said such findings could be followed by appropriate social distancing measures. Hundreds of communities nationwide are already engaging in wastewater surveillance for the coronavirus, and Kenyon has several faculty members with the expertise to interpret the data, she offered.

Having the results of wastewater surveillance after four weeks will establish a baseline to test against further results if the testing proceeds.

“We won’t know how effective this is until we’ve tried it out for a month,” Slonczewski said.

During an update on Kenyon’s campus reopening, Ian Smith, the college’s new vice president for facilities, planning, and sustainability, said a reopening plan is being undertaken with the health of all Kenyon students and community members in mind. It should be released in about two weeks, and will involve input from the “Ohio Five” of colleges that help issue medical and health guidelines. They include The Ohio State College of Public Health. Kenyon has also been meeting with Knox Public Health Commissioner Julie Miller every two weeks, he said, as have representatives from Mount Vernon Nazarene University.

To ensure distancing once Kenyon students return, Smith continually referred to the need to “de-densify,” or the “de-densification” of the campus — residentially, as well as where student dining is concerned, in teaching areas and athletics. Plans have involved re-engineering the way the campus operates, and is going to require providing numerous additions through temporary spaces to accommodate safety protocols. Kenyon’s incoming freshman class is set to be 5 percent larger than last year’s, he noted.

Wise said the village would be happy to play a role in helping provide temporary space needs for the college. To date, however, only the Head Start program has reopened at the community center, where the village offices are located and the village council meets. Council decided not to yet allow a full community center reopening on Wise’s advice, but did offer to make keys for all councilmembers so they can check their mail and meet with Wise and Fiscal Officer Kathi Schonauer as needed.

Councilmembers also discussed ongoing negotiations involving the renewal of the Knox County Sheriff’s contract, with sheriff’s patrol services provided by two officers, full-time, continuing at present under the now-expired contract. For the past several months, some community members, led by a group of Kenyon students, have called for changes in the contract due to what some believe involves racial harassment by one of the deputies toward African-American students. The deputy has denied the allegations.

On the table was a proposal to reduce the number of hours of patrolling per week from 80 hours to 40 hours. Items such as any proposals regarding the use of force, as mentioned by councilmember Ben Nutter, a Kenyon student, or the type of gear worn by sheriff’s officers, “are complete non-starters,” Village Solicitor Clint Bailey said. It is possible to make progress on issues such as removing a sheriff’s deputy from his Gambier post from what is referred to as a “for cause removal.”

Bailey called the contract as currently negotiated “more or less ready to go.”

But councilmembers continued to express concerns over the demeanor of deputies who would be patrolling Kenyon. Councilmember Phil Brooks, of the village Police and Personnel Committee, said the deputies must be well-trained in the level of cultural differences they will encounter from new Kenyon students who come from all over the world.

“They’re going to have the kinds of backgrounds they (sheriff’s deputies) are not used to dealing with,” Brooks said.

Before they went into executive session to discuss what Bailey said should involve the level of coverage the village wants from the sheriff’s office, Councilmember Liz Forman said she was leaning more toward 40 hours of sheriff’s patrolling over the current 80. Kenyon students seem more able to deal with safety issues relating to their campus than they are being patrolled by an outside force unfamiliar to them.

“I’ve never even met these people,” Brooks said of the two deputies, adding he would like to sit down with them and “look into their eyes” before any contract is approved.

Councilmember Morgan Giles asked Wise if Kenyon administration likes the current contract that calls for 80 hours of weekly patrolling.

“As far as I know, they do,” Wise said.

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Larry Di Giovanni: 740-397-5333 or larry@mountvernonnews.com and on Twitter, @mountvernonnews