OPINION: Decision to go in-person in fall is premature

USF’s announcement that all classes will return to in-person instruction in the fall semester could become an empty promise to hopeful students. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/Creative Commons

USF administration announced March 4 that it plans to go back to in-person classes by fall, raising the hopes of students who may become disappointed if those plans get derailed due to a possible increase in COVID-19 cases.

Despite expectations that college students will have access to the vaccine by April, according to a Feb. 21 prediction by Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, guaranteeing students the ability to attend fully in-person classes by August seems premature. 

It is far too early to allow students to believe that in five months USF will be back to normal pre-COVID-19 operations. The administration has said the classroom experience will mirror that of 2019, meaning classrooms will seat its full capacity of students, but the state of the pandemic can easily worsen between now and the start of the fall semester or can worsen once on campus. 

Although Fauci predicted a majority of Americans will have access to the vaccine by April, most have not been granted access. The only groups of citizens who can obtain the vaccine in Florida as of March 17 are people above the age of 60, those deemed “extremely vulnerable” by a physician and essential workers such as health care workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients, teachers, firefighters and members of law enforcement.

From Dec. 14, when Floridians began receiving vaccinations, to March 17, only 10% of Florida’s residents have been vaccinated, according to a report by the Florida Department of Health, meaning it will most likely take much longer than one more month for all Floridians to receive vaccinations. 

The continuous delays for students to become vaccinated should lead USF administration to understand that these predictions are only estimates and it is possible students will not be sufficiently vaccinated by August. 

Although Tampa COVID-19 cases are at an all-time low since the beginning of the year, that does not guarantee cases will continue to decrease until August. 

Summer tourism and activity may increase COVID-19 cases in Florida, as it did in July 2020 when the Florida Department of Health reported 15,300 new cases July 12, a record day of positive cases in the summer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As a result, Florida’s legislators were forced to extend the amount of time bars were shut down, not opening again until September. 

USF administrators can’t predict fall COVID-19 data based on the drop in cases that is currently taking place. 

The prospect of going back to in-person classrooms also puts students at risk of contracting the virus weeks into the fall semester. 

Many students may not be vaccinated by then, which leaves them at risk of being infected. Some universities attempted to transition back to in-person classes in August 2020, but were soon forced to return to virtual classrooms due to the quick transmission of COVID-19 on their campuses.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, its in-person fall 2020 semester started Aug. 10, but quickly returned online just seven days later after 130 students tested positive on campus, according to an email sent to students Aug. 17.

It is safest for universities to remain online, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has continued to suggest on its website since October. USF administration should assume classes will continue to take place virtually until it is close enough to the beginning of fall when the administration can have a better understanding of COVID-19 case trends both county and nationwide and the probability of students and faculty contracting it. 

USF is making a mistake in promising students and faculty that the university will return to full-capacity in-person classes in the fall semester, and should instead release a plan to stay online until administration has more information on student vaccination and Tampa’s COVID-19 cases.