Pamela A. Zeiser By: Pamela A. Zeiser
Associate Professor of Political Science
View profile and Diary

15 Oct 2020 : A Cautious Reopening

            My university has passed mid-semester and things are going better than most feared, or even hoped. Florida’s governor threatened our funding if state universities did not reopen face-to-face (other budget cuts notwithstanding), and thus my school drafted its “re-opening blueprint,” which called for 50% face-to-face (F2F) courses and 50% distance-learning/remote instruction. It called for once-daily cleaning of classrooms – not cleaning in between course meetings. It offered the caveat that cleaning supplies would be provided “if available.” Dorms would re-open, although we are primarily a commuter school. The plan did not define what would be considered an “outbreak” or at what caseload of COVID-19 it would “re-close.” I was not impressed.

            University-wide, we in fact ended up with 30% of courses F2F and the remainder online. Faculty were allowed request the type of courses they preferred, without any hoops to jump through or medical forms to fill out. Although rumors of pressure to go F2F swirled, I personally know no one who was forced into the classroom. (I do know one person who asked for F2F but was shifted online because no classroom allowing for physical distancing was available at the right time.) There are 16 full-time faculty in my department; only one is teaching F2F, at his request. In my department, there are 2 F2F courses this Fall – that’s it, 2. Out of 49 courses. Less than one-half of one percent. For Spring semester, it appears two full-time faculty in my department will teach F2F, at their own request.

            Other US universities re-opened to disasters, closing again within 10 days after the start of classes because of spikes in COVID-19 cases. We have done relatively well thus far – and no worse than expected. According to the University’s online reporting, there were 45 cases of COVID-19 among students and employees in the month of August. In September, there were 33 total cases. We have approximately 17,000 total students, although I do not know how many are actually on campus regularly at this time. Though October is not yet finished, it has seen the highest weekly rate of positive cases: 22 students, 11 of whom were reportedly members of the same sports team. (Allegedly, one “broke the bubble” and then exposed their teammates.) I hope this is not a harbinger of worse to come. According to our university President at a virtual town hall last week, there have been no clusters centered on F2F courses in classrooms and no employee/faculty cases are traced to classrooms. He also said we currently have more tests than people asking for them. Most employee cases have been among Physical Facilities personnel (which is definitely a concern), with a scattering across other departments such as Admissions, Financial Aid, Health Services, Housing, and Athletics.  (All of this information, by the way, indicates my university is doing better at contact-tracing than my county or state.)

            I do not know how students are reacting to F2F courses and quarantines. Certainly, our student-run media is NOT reporting the same disgruntlement with quarantines (and quarantine meals) that is appearing elsewhere in the country.

            I was on campus one day last week – for the first time since the semester began because those of us teaching entirely online are actively discouraged from going to campus. (I needed items from my office.) I saw three colleagues in their offices. Our two office staff take turns reporting to campus, with only one present at a time and only three days a week. I saw a sprinkling of students studying outdoors and even fewer studying indoors; social distancing was readily apparent. Hallways and walkways were empty, when they previously would have been crowded with students changing classes. It was lunchtime and at one food venue I saw four people, two in line and two waiting for their take-out orders – this at a location that last year would have had a line out the door of 20-30 people waiting to order. Two other nearby food venues remained closed. Everyone I saw was masked.

            Early on, there was much grumbling about administrators failing to take a stand against the governor and other state officials. Now, rumors swirl that the administration didn’t want to re-open any more than faculty did . . . and that this was perhaps reflected in a re-opening blueprint that was less-than-convincing and easy acceptance of the failure to meet the blueprint’s 50% goal of F2F cases.

            Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether we escape or suffer the same fate as other universities around the country. For all our sakes, I'll hope for the former.

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