Students, faculty evaluate USF’s efforts toward reopening at full-capacity

At the prospect of a full unmasked return to campus, students and faculty have expressed a multitude of opinions, with some eager to return free of the mask and others hoping that masks will be worn despite orders. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

In light of USF’s decision to rescind all COVID-19-related guidelines and mandates, there is still much uncertainty among students over returning to “normal” this fall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an update May 13 stating that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks anymore unless required by an institution or business. USF then sent an email to all students and faculty May 18 announcing it was lifting mask mandates across all three campuses after Summer B commences due to the ample availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

Since the university’s announcement, some students and faculty have expressed relief to not need to wear masks anymore, though others are apprehensive about the decision due to continued concern about the spread of COVID-19. 

Senior music performance major Zachary McKinon said he had hoped for some restrictions to remain in place, noting students should wear masks if they’re sick during flu season to lessen the transmission of the virus.

“I did feel a little worried [about returning to campus in the fall],” said McKinon. “I was hoping that [mitigation protocols] would still be put in place just in case, like plenty of online options, limited capacity and regulated in-person events on campus. It feels like [USF leaders] are just throwing us out there.”

Starting June 28, USF will allow campus activity to be fully open, with options for students who may not be comfortable coming back to take online classes while also allowing greater capacity on university grounds for the first time in over a year.

McKinon hopes mask wearing will continue on campus if students are sick. He said having half the class out with the flu shouldn’t be the norm.  

“I don’t think we need to be masked up 24/7,” said McKinon. “[But] wearing a mask or staying home when you’re sick and making sure everyone has easy access to health services and sanitation equipment, that’s the kind of change I would love to see come from this.”

School of Theatre and Dance Technical Director Chris Pyfrom said despite USF dropping the mask mandate, he will continue to wear personal protective equipment in his teaching space, because building and designing sets already come with safety guidelines similar to those related to COVID-19. 

“When working with fine particles, when working with dust or whatnot, it is usually an OSHA  [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] recommendation that you do have some type of dust protection,” said Pyfrom. 

“Face masks were already part of the culture in the scene shop. Probably not as much as they will be going forward, [so] I will probably try to push that a little bit further.” 

Though an advocate for continued mask wearing, Pyfrom said he understood the university’s plans to return to normal.

“On one hand, you have a bunch of people who did not normally have to wear masks,” said Pyfrom. “It was something new that they didn’t normally have to deal with. We’ve  been having to do it for over a year. So I can understand their frustration in wanting to get back to some sort of normal.”

Mass communications associate professor Kelli Burns said she feels the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching and is a big advocate for vaccines. While she can’t control if all USF students get vaccinated, she said she remains empowered in the situation by being positive yet careful.

“I think what I have to do is take every precaution I can,” said Burns. “I would hope that students that might come to me for office hours would wear a mask if they aren’t vaccinated or ask to meet in a more open space, because you can still catch the virus even if you’re fully vaccinated.”

Burns empathized with students who have had their college experience sullied by the pandemic and is eager for an in-person return in the fall so students can get back to the experience she feels they deserve. 

“When I walked [in person during spring 2021], to my class that I taught from [the Communication and Information Sciences Building] to Cooper [Hall], I would usually see only one or two people on campus,” said Burns. “I’m looking forward to seeing a bustling campus again.”

Senior public health major Divya Kaushal is concerned with USF’s decision, believing it to be too hasty. 

“As one of the top public health colleges in the nation, USF should be examining the situation more closely before opening up the campus,” said Kaushal. “We should wait until at least half of the Florida population has been fully vaccinated, and right now, only 38.82% of the population is.”

Kaushal noted how New York has a higher vaccinated population than Florida, yet still has requirements for university students to be vaccinated and restrictions on class sizes. 

“I feel unsafe on campus despite being fully vaccinated,” said Kaushal. “I chose to take online classes this upcoming summer and fall because it is too premature to open.”

Senior general studies major Shanon Holm felt much differently about the university’s decision. 

“There are risks in everything we do,” said Holm. “But it has been long enough and the risk is low.” 

“[I] got the vaccine and feel comfortable living life normally,” said Holm. “I feel USF should have opened up like local high schools have been all school year. The restrictions were over the top. I would feel just as comfortable coming to campus as I am going to Publix.”

Some students, such as Caroline Diaz, a junior majoring in biomedical sciences, were hesitant about the announcement, preferring to wait and see what happens rather than immediately go back to pre-COVID operations.

“I’ll definitely be playing it by ear,” said Diaz. “I’m fully vaccinated, but if this new ‘mask optional’ thing creates a spike in cases for ‘x’ or ‘y’ reasons, I’ll be wearing my mask indoors.”

While she was concerned about returning to campus for the spring, Diaz said she thinks USF handled the pandemic very well and felt safe and hopes her peers will consider getting vaccinated for the safety and comfort of others.

Faculty members have expressed trust in USF’s adherence to CDC recommendations but also admit there are lingering uncertainties.

Philosophy department assistant professor Raman Sachdev, like several faculty members, said he plans to assess student comfort on an individual level rather than enforce any general guidelines. 

“Even though I’m vaccinated too, I will probably wear a mask in the classroom,” said Sachdev. “Then let my students do as they feel comfortable.”

Sachdev said he is still uncertain about what the appropriate course of action for the university should be going forward.

“There’s a lot of back and forth on what the right moves were in terms of opening up or not doing so,” said Sachdev. “I still have a big question mark about what the right thing to do is.”

School of Theatre and Dance assistant professor Douglas Hall said an open dialogue between him and his students would be beneficial in the upcoming semester. 

“I certainly plan to adapt to make sure everybody’s content doing what we’re doing,” said Hall. “I think it’s about keeping fluid and not being fundamental about anything, … about reevaluating the situation monthly to see if anything’s changed. If so, we can then adjust the policies accordingly.”

Hall hopes maintaining this type of dialogue will help keep an element of respect for peoples’ personal choices.

“I think we discovered some ways to use online platforms to enhance education [at the beginning of the pandemic], but to do everything that way is no longer interesting,” said Hall. “So I’m anxious, particularly because what I teach is a physical discipline.” 

Hall explained how teaching an acting class requires a hands-on approach, something that can’t be properly conveyed in an online class. 

English associate professor Cynthia Patterson had a few concerns for the upcoming school year, having been accustomed to teaching online classes since 2005 at USF’s now-dissolved branch campus at Florida Polytechnic University.

“Most of our face-to-face classes [for the fall] in the English department are under-enrolled to the point where they’re likely to be canceled,” said Patterson. “I’m wondering if students have become accustomed to online classes and may not be thrilled about going back to the classroom.” 

For students who are immunocompromised, Patterson expressed that she would advocate for them to be granted waivers to take fully online classes.

Sachdev said leniency toward students is an important part of his curriculum. He said COVID-19 has helped him take his patience even further. 

“In the middle of my graduate program, I had to pack up and leave due to a family emergency,” said Sachdev. “I received the kind of understanding and compassion from my graduate faculty toward my situation that would be immoral not to extend to my own students.

“I just want to treat classes in the fall semester the way I’ve been treating them the past couple semesters. Let’s talk because we’re still trying to figure our way out of this.”