Fall semester at The University of Tampa is going to look very different this year than normal: mandatory mask-wearing, physical distancing, and mostly virtual events. UT’s COVID-19 Health Safety Task Force spent the summer developing a plan for the Fall term to keep students as safe as possible. However, some students are still concerned about returning to campus during a pandemic.
“To my understanding, the state of Florida is a large epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tyler Stevenson, sophomore marine biology major. “On top of financial stability, I’m concerned of my own well-being and health amidst the global crisis.”
Florida has over 500 thousand coronavirus cases, and continues to climb each day. Still, UT is striving to resume as much in-person instruction as safely possible, mainly relying on physical distancing throughout campus and mandatory mask-wearing in all indoor and outdoor common areas where physical distancing cannot be met.
“Across campus it’s going to be a physically distanced approach with masks required,” said Stephanie Russell Krebs, dean of students and co-chair on UT’s COVID-19 task force. “When I’m walking to my car I’ll put my mask down, but if I see that I’m going to pass someone, I put my mask on.”
There are exceptions to this policy if eating in dining facilities or engaging in athletic practices. In some performance-based classes such as wind ensemble or private lessons, students can still wear masks that have slits in them in class to still be able to play instruments while covering their nose.
As for courses, those that cannot be taught while following physical distancing measures will be remote. Most classes, however, will be hybrid or fully in-person.
For those in-person classes, all students and faculty are expected to wear a mask while also physical distancing. Professors that have underlying health conditions or are at a higher risk of COVID-19 are able to request to teach their classes fully remote. Students who also have a medical condition or live with family members who have medical conditions could request for all online courses. Courses that are hybrid will incorporate both virtual and in-person methods to allow for physical distancing.
Students are split on which method is best for a safe return to school. In a survey of 340 UT students, 36% of students said they prefer in-person classes, 37% answered hybrid, and 27% preferred fully remote.
Some students are also worried about being on campus in general. In the same survey, only 17% of UT students said they’re not concerned about physically being on-campus during the pandemic and 60% of students said they’re very or somewhat concerned. Forty-three percent of students also said that physically being in a classroom will negatively impact them academically due to their concerns about COVID-19.
Students like Miranda Rider, junior criminology major, however, are confident in UT’s decision to open campus.
“I’m impressed – for being in uncharted territory, the game plan they’ve come up with is pretty solid,” said Rider. “Granted, things aren’t going to be perfect, [but] we’re all heading into a semester no one’s experienced before.”
Since UT is relying on students, faculty, and staff to monitor their health and practice good habits to prevent spreading the virus, some students are questioning how an outbreak could be prevented.
To help control the spread on-campus and alert students who may have been exposed to COVID-19, the university is utilizing a contact tracing team, Rapid-Trace. Any student who is positively diagnosed with COVID-19 at an off-campus location must report their diagnosis to the team at email@example.com or (813) 699-3551.
Access to residence halls is currently being restricted to students, faculty and staff, and approved vendors. However, visitors who have been invited for a program or event or are there for an essential service can still come to campus.
“My main concerns are actually off-campus visitors,” said Rider. “I’ve seen firsthand college students sneaking people off-campus into their halls – you aren’t going to be able to stop this one hundred percent and it’s the uncertainty of not knowing what the visitors are like is what has me most concerned.”
Overall, many students don’t want a repeat of the previous Spring semester: 56% of UT students say that the lack of socialization and not being on campus for the remainder of the Spring term significantly impacted them either academically, mentally, or physically. But a few students testing positive for the coronavirus doesn’t mean that campus will automatically shut down.
“Outbreak is defined differently by different people,” said Krebs. “It will be likely that we will have cases on-campus and we don’t want a couple cases to trigger an immediate move to remote learning – we want to have a plan in place that we feel like we can best support the students and still move forward.”
If a student does experience COVID-19 symptoms, whether they live on or off-campus, the Health and Wellness Center on campus is providing COVID-19 testing, as well as usual services. The only change is to counseling services, which will be held virtually via HIPPA compliant Zoom.
The center has also added a medical annex in the back of the clinic for patients experiencing viral symptoms. Students that do experience COVID-19 symptoms or want to get tested, however, should call the center prior to arrival.
Students that do test positive for COVID-19 will be able to quarantine in reserved rooms in residence halls such as Urso Hall.
But these measures don’t make everyone feel safe. Concerns about the coronavirus, as well as the potential of classes going fully remote, has left some students considering a gap year or semester, or even withdrawing from UT altogether.
“I wanted to take a gap semester because my Fall season got cancelled and I wanted to save a semester of schooling in order to compete and use my eligibility,” said Lana Rukab, sophomore criminology major and women’s cross country athlete. “I wanted to extend my academic years to compete.”
Rukab seriously considered a gap semester, but in the end, decided to take 12 credits at the request of her parents. Rukab said she’ll be commuting back and forth from Tampa to her hometown, Indialantic, Florida, and will continue working at home to save money.
Many students are also concerned about financial stability. In July, the housing agreement was updated with a new addendum that stated if the university were to shut down again like last semester, students will still be responsible for the full cost of tuition, meal plans, and housing. Following this change, some students made the decision to cancel their housing plan – like Rukab – and consider leaving.
Although the addendum doesn’t guarantee a refund, it’s not necessarily out of the question.
“The reason for putting the addendum in, I know it can read in a way that can be very frustrating for people,” said Krebs. “Because everything is so fluid, we’re not able to, in writing, guarantee that there would be any type of refund. With that said, when situations arise we would strive to do right by our students and families.”
But overall, many students’ concerns come down to safety. Daily cases in the U.S. continue to increase, and with a vast out-of-state population, it heightens the risk even more.
“UT is not a large school; however, its student body is very close and located in the middle of a major city,” said Stevenson. “Many students come to UT from around the world and this would surely allow for more spreading of the virus.”
As the situation evolves each day, the most up-to-date information on UT’s plan for the Fall term can be found on UT’s homepage under “COVID-19 Response/Fall 2020 Opening.”