If you’re a student at the University of West Florida, you’ll be staying home and firing up the computer beginning later this month.
All classes are going straight online after Thanksgiving, and while it coincides with a rise in coronavirus cases here and elsewhere, it’s actually a pre-planned move.
“When we put together our plan for reopening – that was approved by the Board of Governors – that included how we were going to spend the fall semester,” said UWF President Martha Saunders.
“Most of the universities agreed that it would probably be best not to have in-person classes after Thanksgiving. Because it increased the risk of student going home, perhaps picking up COVID and then coming back and spreading it to others.”
Efforts are also underway to persuade students to get tested for the coronavirus before they head home. Meanwhile, students who can’t go home will be allowed to stay in the campus dormitories, with student services still provided.
As for courses that include labs and other hands-on work, Saunders says that’s been factored into the closing.
“The faculty understood that from the beginning of the semester; and they built in the in-person lab requirements to end at Thanksgiving,” Saunders said. “And so, no one will be put under any particular duress because of that.”
For most of the online classes, students will have to call up Zoom and the university’s e-learning platform.
“Some will be on Zoom, but they will need access to online somewhere; we’ve been able to accommodate any students with those needs,” said Saunders. “We’ll also have places on campus that they can use if they need to.”
UWF remains in Phase-2 of its reopening blueprint – that’s with 50% of staff working remotely. Other changes are in place for the remainder of fall semester, with an eye toward spring, 2021, which is currently in “watch and wait” mode.
“We have extended our winter break by a week; we have scheduled the spring classes,” Saunders said. “There are more opportunities for students to have face-to-face classes; we have more hybrid classes scheduled. What we’re trying to avoid is any abrupt change like we saw last year.”
The plan in place at West Florida was developed, in part, through consultations with the other universities in Florida with whom Saunders meets virtually on a weekly basis.
“It’s been a good collaboration,” she said. “Our plans are a little different, but for the most part we’re all heading for the same goal. We’re trying to get more face time with students — we know that’s what they’re missing. But we’re also trying to do it in a way that is responsible and safe.”
Meanwhile, the Argonaut athletic program continues in limbo, with fall sports having been pushed back to at least the spring. Athletics Director Dave Scott says while this is all new, it’s not expected to have that much of an effect going forward.
“The teams that will be continuing are men’s and women’s basketball and [women’s] swim and dive,” said Scott. “We just found out this week that basketball will have some games in December, and swim and dive is planning to start competing in January. Assuming all things continue to move forward. We always have a ‘COVID clause.’”
Moving all academics online, believes Scott, gives the student-athletes more flexibility.
“To go home and do other things,” Scott said. “And our coaches are still working with our student-athletes on their academic progress and things like that so they’ll stay engaged virtually. We’ve obviously gotten much better at that this semester.”
When the basketball games and swimming and diving competitions resume, Scott says a limited amount of spectators will be able to catch the action.
“Basketball, we’re looking at 25% capacity; we haven’t moved into swim and dive yet [but] we’ll probably look at something similar – the space over there is a little more constrained,” Scott said. “We’re following institutional guidelines, the CDC, the NCAA has guidelines out there now, and our [Gulf South] conference is putting protocols in place for play.”
For everyone, the pandemic has been a time of learning – about the disease and how to adjust everyday life to stay safe. Same goes for organized athletics.
Scott is confident that lessons learned in 2020, could be applied next year to the point where seasons could be played in their entirety.
“You’re hoping that, at some point spring or summer, we have the impact of a vaccine,” Scott said. “I don’t think it will ever go back to the same way it was, but hopefully we continue to learn and be able to react in a way that puts us back to where sports are competitive in the fall of ’21.”