Slowly transitioning back to its “pre-COVID” operations, USF plans on welcoming thousands of students in the summer and fall semesters in an attempt to bring back a sense of normalcy and the traditional college experience to students across campuses.
USF President Steven Currall announced in a universitywide email Wednesday afternoon plans for a full return to “pre-COVID in-person” course delivery beginning fall 2021, encompassing an increase in the number of in-person classes offered as well as the return of normal student activities.
The number of in-person and online classes for the upcoming fall semester will look similar to fall 2019, including the number of seats available, according to USF Provost Ralph Wilcox. In the fall 2020 semester, the in-person classroom capacity was reduced to around 30% as a way to mitigate the risks of spreading COVID-19.
For fall 2021, Wilcox hopes for no limitations on the normal number of seats for in-person classes. For instance, if a lecture hall has 50 seats available, Wilcox says the plan is for all 50 seats to be open for registration.
“We are also hopeful that we’ll be able to provide the same number of seats in the fall of 2021 as we did in 2019, rather than reduce the classroom capacity, the number of students that can enroll. So that’s the plan,” Wilcox said.
“What [Wednesday’s] announcement means is that we now move from a plan to active preparation for Summer B starting on June 28 when we expect to welcome so many new freshmen to campus. And then, of course, to fall semester on Aug. 23.”
Meanwhile, Wilcox said the rest of the spring semester will remain unchanged.
He said the same “balance” of in-person and online classes will be offered in the Summer A semester. However, starting June 28, when Summer B kicks off, the university will then start operating under “normal, pre-COVID” conditions.
Despite the announcement, Wilcox said the plans could still change depending on the mutation of the virus as well as public health data, including the number of infections, hospitalizations and death rates across the USF community as well as in surrounding counties.
“I want to make very, very clear that university leadership will reserve the right to reduce classroom capacity subsequently if the public health data suggest the need to do so,” he said. “So, again, first and foremost, we are going to keep the health and well-being of our campus communities in all of our planning and our preparations.
“We’re planning for full classroom capacity, probably with masks and face coverings and certainly with hand washing and sanitizing. But we’re six months out so it’s really too early to suggest with any certainty just what the classroom capacities [are] going to look like.”
With the plans to resume full operations by the fall semester, students won’t be the only ones impacted by this decision.
Faculty and staff also had to overcome the difficulties posed by the pandemic while working mostly at home — either conducting live sessions and meetings or virtually grading assignments. With an increase in in-person class offerings, the question of whether faculty and staff would be given a say on their preferred method of teaching remained up in the air.
On that matter, Wilcox said faculty and staff will be able to submit an ADA accommodation request to meet their needs and preferences. The request would then be evaluated by the Human Resources department.
“First and foremost, we’re here to meet the needs of our students … If a faculty member requests an ADA accommodation, that would have to be submitted or processed through … Human Resources,” he said. “That’s always been the case.”
In preparations to welcome thousands of students back on campus in the coming months, the university also plans on advancing into its next reopening phase.
The university has been under a modified phase II of the Resuming University Operations Amid a Global Pandemic plan since Aug. 7. Since then, the university has been observing public health data around COVID-19 before moving into phase III.
To move into phase III, College of Public Health Dean Donna Petersen said the surrounding communities should report a test positivity rate lower than 5% for a period of two weeks.
Wilcox said the university would potentially shift to phase III before March 29, when registration for summer and fall classes opens for degree-seeking students.
Driven by data, Petersen said USF’s reopening plans can change depending on COVID-19 data trends.
“We are planning the schedules for Summer B and for fall with the same number of class sections that we had in 2019, however, reserving the means to retain COVID capacity classrooms,” Petersen said. “So say there’s a class in a large classroom and it normally would seat, I don’t know, 250 people. We intend to offer that class, but if the situation is such that for the safety of our students and our faculty we need to retain the capacity of maybe 100 seats, then we will look at alternatives.”
The decision, however, is dependent upon the virus mutation. A recent concern for Petersen has been the U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7 and identified in COVID-19 patients around the U.K. on Dec. 14. If the variant becomes a threat to the community, she said the plans might be affected and the in-person class capacities could be reduced.
In regard to the vaccine, Petersen said the recent advancements in distribution will potentially accelerate the rate of vaccinations across the country. While the federal and state government push for an increase in the number of vaccinations, Petersen said the university won’t be able to require students, faculty and staff to take the vaccine for the upcoming semesters as it is still not widely available in the market.
“You can’t require something like that until people have the means to actually get the vaccine,” she said. “So, that is not something we would impose but it is certainly something that we are talking about.
“If it’s required, it would be required. That’s something that each individual would then have to decide [if] they want to attend the university in person.”
Petersen said the university is working on adding a feature on CampusPass to record whether a student has been vaccinated for future semesters. The feature would give students a “permanent pass” depending on their immunization for the coronavirus.
The university has also started vaccinating more individuals 65 or older after receiving more doses from the Hillsborough County Department of Health. The supply, while limited, is being given at the USF Health Morsani Center for Advanced Health Care, located at 13330 Laurel Drive.
All eligible individuals had to fill out a survey indicating their interest to take the vaccine. Petersen said those individuals have already gotten the vaccine and now it’s being offered to their eligible family members.
“I believe we’ve gotten through all of them and now we’re reaching out to members of the family, household members of our employees who are over 65 and again, that’s just part of our efforts to help the overall effort to get more people to vaccinate, to help the governor’s desire to get over 65 vaccinated so we can move to the younger population,” Petersen said.
The face coverings and the daily CampusPass, however, will still remain a norm in the near future, according to Petersen.
“We will have to maintain the face covering policies and we’ll continue with the disinfecting and Daily Symptom Checker and all of that, so we may be able to loosen up on the distancing which will allow us to put more people into our classrooms,” she said.
While the virus’ conditions can change at any time, Wilcox is encouraged that a full return to campus operations will happen as the summer and fall semesters approach.
“When the new fall semester opens up, things could look very, very different,” Wilcox said.
“But for now, as I say, the data, whether it’s infection rates, hospitalization rates, death rates on campus or in the wider community, we’re seeing those decline rapidly and providing that it continues, we are really quite confident that we’ll be able to return to on-campus activities … that means in the classroom, in the residence halls and across campuses.”