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Town halls address campus reopening concerns from faculty, students

The student remote town hall with USF President Steven Currall (above) focused on the university’s plan for fall reopening. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/MICROSOFT TEAMS

Random testing, mandatory face coverings and fall schedules were among the topics discussed during Friday’s town hall meetings hosted by USF President Steven Currall. 

As a way to address questions and concerns about the phased return to campus and fall reopening, Currall hosted two meetings — with faculty/staff at 11:30 a.m. and students at 3 p.m. — through Microsoft Teams. 

After kicking off the town halls with roughly 30-minute overviews of the plan to reopen, Currall and other USF administrators answered questions from the audience.

From concerns with the housing addendum to the resumption of campus life, hundreds of students joined the meeting seeking answers on how the fall semester might look like.

Students voiced their concerns over the latest announcement from housing, that refunds will not be given in the event the dorms shut down due to a COVID-19 outbreak. 

“Based on the information we have at this time, we fully expect for both of our campuses to remain open for both the fall and spring semesters,” said Ana Hernandez, vice president of Housing and Residential Education. “However, we must prepare a contingency plan in case COVID-19 conditions change.”

According to Hernandez, the dorms will stay open for students who must remain on campus in the event that classes go remote. 

The new housing addendum has a July 1 deadline for canceling the agreement without a fee, though that is subject to change.

“Because class changes may not be available until after July 1 and class formats might change a student’s choice to live on campus, we are planning on looking at waiving the thousand dollar cancellation fee for anyone who finds out after July 1 that all of their classes in the fall semester will be online,” Hernandez said. 

Residence halls on both the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses will still operate at “design capacity,” meaning that each room will be filled according to the way it was designed. Dorms will have spaces set aside for residents who may have to self-isolate. 

On-campus facilities such as libraries, recreational facilities and the Marshall Student Center are set to reopen during phase two for Tampa and St. Pete students. Sarasota-Manatee’s facilities will not reopen until the fall.

As a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19, all students will be required to fill out a survey before returning to campus at the beginning of each semester, as well as a daily symptom check once back on campus.

“This has two primary purposes,” said Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health. “One is to remind each of us that if we do not feel well, we need to stay home, not go to class [and] not go to work. [Students] need to contact a health provider and follow their directions.”

“The second purpose is symptom tracking. It lets us detect if there seems to be an increase in people reporting symptoms that might trigger us to go in and cluster test a population.”

Besides daily symptom surveys, every other week 10 percent of the USF population across all three campuses will be randomly sampled for a coronavirus test. 

“[The testing] will allow us to both understand the presence and movement of the virus in our community, but it also lets us identify asymptomatic and presymptomatic people,” said Petersen

Additionally, fall classes will now have hybrid options to limit the amount of face-to-face gatherings on campus. Certain classes will be prioritized to remain in person, while others with high enrollment will be made virtual. 

Any changes to the fall schedule will be announced in late July, according to provost Ralph Wilcox. 

Besides addressing students’ concerns, Currall also hosted a separate town hall for faculty and staff to share their views and answer questions regarding the resumption of campus operations.

Topics included employee testing, faculty research, enforcement of safety guidelines and ways to hold students accountable.

In regard to safety guidelines, Petersen reinforced the mandatory use of face coverings in shared spaces as well as the enhanced cleaning protocols in areas with high-touch surfaces and in classrooms on a daily basis.

For faculty and staff, a shared concern was how such policies would be enforced and followed by members of the USF community.

One person asked for advice in case students don’t follow safety guidelines once face-to-face instruction resumes. Wilcox said the protocols should be strictly enforced.

“First and foremost, remind them,” said Wilcox. “As I’m sure they will remind you if you miss that as well. However, if there is some resistance or a continuing behavior of that kind, certainly we expect faculty members to ask those students to leave. If that continues, then those cases will be referred to our student conduct office at the university.” 

Besides the required use of face coverings, cough etiquette, social distancing guidelines and the practice of handwashing will be strictly implemented once campus activity resumes in the fall, according to Wilcox.

Faculty and staff also inquired about the financial impact COVID-19 and how the university is planning to navigate it. 

Senior Vice President for Business and Financial Strategy David Lechner said the university would have a projected cost between $16 and $25 million in COVID-19-related expenses in the fall. These funds would come from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and state educational and general carry-forward funds.

One anonymous person asked how rising cases of COVID-19 in Florida will affect the campus reopening plans. According to the state health department, Florida hit a new daily record of COVID-19 cases Friday with 3,822 positive results. While developing the plan, Currall said the need for flexibility was taken into account.

“What we really need to do as a leadership team and as an institution is to have a contingency model where we have a basic framework and then we can respond and adjust to public health information coming in,” said Currall.  

USF’s four-phased approach to resuming campus operations will act as that basic framework and shift depending on how the pandemic behaves and what the state government decides.

Petersen said the administration hopes to prepare the campus over summer for students to come back at nearly full capacity in the fall.

“Our intent is to get to phase three in time for the fall semester, which is why we needed to move into phase one but we are not intending nor do we wish to see a new surge of activity on our campuses,” said Petersen. “Not the intent of phase one, it starts the clock. You will see, if you do come on campus, there is more activity going on to prepare the campus for more of us to return to campus.”

As a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19 as well as ensure the safety and well-being of the USF community, the university will provide hand sanitizers and two reusable cloth masks for each student, faculty and staff, according to Petersen. Signs encouraging social distancing and reminding people to remain 6 feet apart will also be put up in classrooms and hallways.

During phase two, up to 50 percent of staff will be allowed to return to campus with extensive protective measures still in place. The university will expand the resumption of critical services as well as guidance to move into the third phase by the start of the fall semester.

If conditions allow, the university will begin phase two June 29.

For staff and faculty performing critical functions on campus, supervisors will have to complete a form to request their return to campus. In those forms, supervisors are required to specify how safety guidelines will be implemented and followed by their employees, according to Petersen.

“What we ask in that process is for those unit leaders to assess their operational units, what activities need to be performed on campus, who needs to perform them and then to submit that to us,” said Petersen.  

Petersen also said the university is finalizing the launch of its surveillance, testing, tracking and isolating procedures for when phase three approaches. For example, high-touch surfaces will be swabbed regularly to detect viral activity and to monitor symptoms in the population. 

USF will decide who comes to campus on a case-by-case basis and take note of faculty who have prior respiratory illnesses such as asthma or weakened immune systems.  

“We do not expect all faculty and all staff to be on campus,” said Petersen. “We will determine who needs to be on campus. Those persons who are at high risk for contracting the disease, or more importantly, to suffer its most severe consequences, they should consider their options and discuss with their supervisors.”

Those who have requested to go back to campus to perform critical functions such as maintenance or research projects were authorized to do so with a letter from the university. However, the university is still encouraging everyone who can work remotely to do so. 

USF’s leadership shared a survey with faculty and staff to ensure they are aware of the new protocols that will be followed on campus and to know how staff feels about the protocols. It had an over 50 percent response rate and the results were shared during the town hall meeting. 

When asked about how comfortable they felt about returning to campus, 21 percent of faculty and staff responded that they were “extremely uncomfortable,” 19 percent said they were “extremely comfortable” and 25 percent were “neutral.” 

When asked about mitigation measures, the responses showed that 96 percent would put in the effort to maintain the required distancing and 95 percent said they were willing to disinfect workspaces. 

Overall, 90 percent responded that they were willing to wear face coverings and only 74 percent of faculty were willing to disinfect their classrooms. Finally, 82 percent of faculty and 65 percent of staff responded that they were willing to hold others accountable for following safety protocols. 

Wilcox said that despite personal feelings toward the pandemic, he hopes all faculty and students will abide by the guidelines USF has provided in order to get on-campus life somewhat back to normal.

“We expect all USF faculty across all campuses to be actively reengaging in the life of the university,” said Wilcox. “Your life will be very different as we learn to live with an invisible virus.”