USF administration addresses coronavirus concerns about coursework, graduation

President Steven Currall, Provost Ralph Wilcox, right, and USF Health experts discussed remote instruction, support for students living in the dorms and university operations at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. ORACLE PHOTO

With concerns about the transition to remote classes, graduation and the overall health of the community, the USF administration Wednesday revealed the university’s immediate plans in addressing the impact of the coronavirus on current and future campus decisions.

The Florida Board of Governors announced earlier Wednesday that all state universities will need to transition to remote coursework “effective immediately” because of the coronavirus outbreak.

USF students were instructed not to return to campus for at least two weeks following the conclusion of spring break. Remote coursework for all USF colleges will begin March 23 until at least April 5.

This came after eight more Florida COVID-19 cases were announced Tuesday night and the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.

Two of these cases, men ages 64 and 67, are in Pinellas County and another, age 46, is in Pasco County, according to the Florida Department of Health.

This means there are now 23 confirmed cases in Florida, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

As of March 11, there are no known cases of coronavirus on campus. However, “about a dozen” students who have recently returned from Level 3, 4 or high-risk countries have been self-isolated, according to university spokesperson Adam Freeman. Those students have been in contact with Student Health Services and are monitored twice daily.

Provost Ralph Wilcox said the university does not know if the two-week period will need to be extended following spring break at the press conference outside the Patel College of Global Sustainability.

“During this period of time, we will be assessing the situation,” Wilcox said. “This isn’t something that we have just been surprised with, we have been working night and day for several weeks now to provide an ‘Instructional Continuity Toolkit’ to instructional professors.”

Through the use of Canvas and the program “Toolkit,” remote classes are expected to be “synchronous” as well.

“Whenever your class is scheduled, that is when you would log in as a student and your professor should be there communicating with you,” Wilcox said. “However, in some cases, professors may have flexibility and will provide assignments asynchronously meaning students can complete those assignments at their convenience with a deadline set.”

However, there have been some contentions with online classes with students who rely heavily on face-to-face communications. This could range from lab work and clinical rotations from medical and nursing students to musical theater and music majors who practice on a stage communally.

Wilcox said USF is working to accommodate this challenge. 

“It’s going to take some creative leveraging and exploration of technology to ensure that students can still meet in small study groups or other group environments outside of a single location,” Wilcox said. “Certainly, we know that technology exists and it’s already being utilized.”

Depending on recommendations from the state in the next few weeks, final exams may not be face-to-face if the remote classes continue beyond two weeks.

Plans for spring graduation are also up in the air, according to President Steven Currall.

“We are reflecting further on that,” Currall said. “We are making no plans yet about whether or not to postpone or cancel the graduation ceremonies. We are trying to comprehend and digest the information that is coming in and we will make informed decisions about that later on in the semester.

“We hope that these ceremonies and events will move forward, of course, because they are very important aspects of the USF community but we are also here to make informed and responsible decisions about the health of our students.”

USF is not planning on making any decisions about closing its doors at this time, but it could be a possibility down the line. If so, the 6,000 students living on campus would need to be accounted for.

With now 95 coronavirus cases in Massachusetts, Harvard University gave its students five days, until March 15, to move out of the 17 first-year dorms and not return for the remainder of the semester.

Wilcox said if students are not able to return to their home county, state or country and have to remain on campus during this period of time, USF will accommodate and support those students.

This could be an issue for international students especially living in dorms, but Wilcox said the university is working on how to appropriately support them.

“[USF] has about 5,000 [international] students from approximately 145 different countries and they are an immensely important part of the USF community,” Wilcox said. “We have already reached out to those students and we know many of them are concerned about their families back home and for the past couple of weeks, we have been providing special outreach and support.

“Those students, if they wish, will continue to live on campus and be provided the same level of support and that’s true of all of our students.”

The university and its operations will remain open unless otherwise specified and faculty and staff will still be present on campus. 

“We are just shifting our instruction to remote instructions,” Currall said. “We are not closing, we are not stopping classes. Our faculty and staff will continue to do their jobs. We are mindful of the fact that they rely on USF for their salary and their benefits so we are committed to trying to keep that continuity in the process.

“We’re balancing all considerations.”