Already dealing with an uncertain spring semester, Florida colleges and universities continue to prepare for safe holiday breaks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As Florida’s COVID-19 cases continue to surge, students are departing their respective campuses and heading home to their families around the country for the holidays, as colleges scramble to implement plans meant to prevent a new spread of the virus when they come back.
The Florida Department of Health has been reporting record-breaking daily increases of new coronavirus cases in the state; as we went to press with this issue, more than 932,000 cases overall have been confirmed. Twelve million-plus cases have been confirmed nationwide, and nearly 257,000 deaths.
Following reopening plans this fall semester, Florida campuses had given students the option to choose between in-person and remote learning – offering on-campus, hybrid and fully online classes.
Florida International University, Miami Dade College and Barry University are among the schools that will continue the same protocols that were put in place this fall for students returning from break.
Aside from following safety measures such as wearing face coverings, maintaining 6 feet of physical distancing, frequent hand-washing and getting tested, students at FIU must complete a COVID-19 symptom screening questionnaire on a mobile application called FIU P3 prior to each time they arrive on campus. The app has been available to students, faculty and staff since Aug. 17. With a student body of about 54,000, there were 36 positive coronavirus cases reported on the university dashboard from Nov. 16 to Nov. 22.
Although journalism senior Ana Soler does not physically attend school at FIU because most courses in her field are remote, she would not feel safe returning to campus if she had the option because she lives and interacts with her grandparents. She prefers to stay off campus, but said that as a student, doing everything online has been difficult and stressful.
“I feel like I am on my own most of the time trying to figure it out, which scares me because I don’t know if I am doing enough to be able to get the experience I want to get from school as an upperclassman,” Soler said.
Daily Symptom Checks & Reduced Capacities
Barry University, serving more than 7,000 students, is following FIU’s model. The university enforces a daily symptom self-check for all students returning to campus, with no exception to those returning from break. Its main campus in Miami Shores offers rapid testing to anyone experiencing symptoms or believes they have been exposed to the virus. As of Nov. 24, the university is at 51 reported cases across all campuses, including individuals who are learning or working remotely, since it began tracking in August.
Dr. John McFadden, dean of Barry’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences, said that testing is one component of the university’s strategy to keep students and employees safe, and that the school is not using widespread testing because local and on-campus factors do not suggest that they need to do so.
“When it comes to the holidays, a lot of our students either stay here for Thanksgiving ... or they travel. We’re not going to implement widespread testing unless somebody is symptomatic or has had a known exposure,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter whether you travel to New York or you travel to Coral Springs, if you end up being in contact with somebody who ends up with COVID-19, then we need to do the right thing, so the distance of the travel is not the concern, it’s the exposures we’re worried about.”
Residential students at Barry have been given the option to remain on campus during the Thanksgiving break and in between semesters.
Naggine Bruno, a senior majoring in biology, is a teacher’s assistant for one of the biology labs and is on campus two days a week.
“I haven’t really been uncomfortable about safety measures at school, but I hope that people who come to the lab are careful when they go home for the holidays, so they don’t bring anything back,” she said.
Founded as a community college and now serving more than 100,000 students, Miami Dade College is a commuter school that does not provide housing. Students typically do not “go home” out of state. Juan Mendieta, director of communications for the college, said the school’s Thanksgiving holiday, which takes place Nov. 26 – 29, and winter recess, which is happening Dec. 21 to Jan. 3, is no different than a weekend or any other holiday break during the year. As of Nov. 24, a total of 46 students and employees reported testing positive for COVID-19 from Nov. 7 to Nov. 13.
Mendieta said the school is continuing to operate with safety measures still in place, including reduced room capacities and fewer students on campus at a time.
The University of Miami and St. Thomas University are taking steps to avoid additional outbreaks by keeping students off campus for a short while upon their return.
A private research institution with more than 17,000 students, UM will continue its mandatory COVID-19 testing, which asks that all students – whether residing on or off campus – take one every two weeks. According to the university dashboard, between Nov. 20 and Nov. 23 there were 56 positive cases among students, faculty and staff. As of Nov. 24, there were a reported 256 active isolations and 263 active quarantines.
According to UM spokesperson Megan Ondrizek, on-campus instruction ended last Friday and there was one additional day of online-only instruction on Nov. 23. Final exams following the break will be conducted online. She added that the Spring 2021 semester will begin Jan. 25, a week later than originally scheduled.
Emma Gerlach, an architecture major in her junior year at UM, lives on campus and has a mixture of in-person and online classes, and only attends in-person class once a week. In an effort to limit her potential exposure to the virus, she tried to take all of her classes online and was lucky to have most of her schedule match her wishes. However, she brought up a concern many residential students share – the fear of going home in case she introduces the virus to her family.
“Being on campus and living [here in Miami] is beneficial, but I am nervous to go home even though I live here because I can unknowingly bring things from campus to them,” she said.
Gerlach trusts herself and has been making conscious decisions to avoid getting infected, but she is aware that others on campus are not being careful and going out.
In-person class attendance after Thanksgiving break at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens will be optional. For the students that choose to attend, it will be held virtually through Zoom. The private Catholic university has a student body of more than 3,500.
As of Nov. 24, the school had six students that tested positive for the virus and are quarantining off campus.
Also setting protocols for winter break are the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Testing at UF, which serves about 56,000 students, is voluntary for all students before they head home for Thanksgiving and will be mandatory for higher-risk students returning in January, such as those with underlying medical conditions. All students, faculty and staff will be screened. According to the university dashboard, 783 people were in isolation for quarantine as of Nov. 23. From Nov. 19 to Nov. 23, 97 individuals tested positive.
After Thanksgiving, students who live in residence halls will be able to return to campus at FSU, but the fall semester will be wrapped up through remote learning. Amy Farnum-Patronis, assistant director at the university’s office of communications, said that after winter break, the first three days of classes that begin on Jan. 6 will be remote. On-campus residents will be required to get tested before moving in for the spring semester. The school has a student body of more than 40,000. During the week of Nov. 15 to Nov. 22, FSU had 42 positive cases.
As the only exception to Florida campuses offering students a choice between in-person and remote classes, Miami Gardens’ Florida Memorial University reverted strictly to remote learning on Oct. 23 following an uptick in coronavirus cases. Students living in residence halls had to move out by Nov. 13, prior to Thanksgiving break.
FMU’s COVID-19 dashboard reports two active cases as of Nov. 24 and a cumulative total of 115 cases since July.
A message to the school from university president Jaffus Hardrick noted that testing, if easily accessible, is still encouraged biweekly at home, and that everyone must provide negative test results within 72 hours of their return to campus after the holiday break. About 1,100 students attend the university.