Hurricane Irma. It was a storm expected to be the worst South Florida has seen since Hurricane Andrew. It obligated the University of Miami to shut down all operations on its multiple campuses for days and kept students away from classes for 20 days. Now, all students, faculty and staff are back from a nearly three-week hiatus with mixed emotions.
President Julio Frenk said he was looking forward to welcoming students back onto campus after the extended break and tough decisions.
“I am very, very relieved that we can resume classes,” Frenk said. “I’m really excited that this very carefully planned process reaches its culminating point when everyone is back, so I am looking forward to having the full bustle and liveliness of our campus back.”
The university announced the decision to resume all classes Sept. 25 along with a slew of other academic calendar changes. Administrators opted to cancel the fall break originally scheduled for Oct. 12-15 and extend classes until Dec. 20. The university chose to hold final exams during class rather than in a traditional final exam period.
Junior Sagar Sharma, a broadcast journalism major, said he is excited to be back on campus after being away for so long. Sharma evacuated to Chicago, his hometown, shortly after classes were canceled. He said he is concerned the extended period away from the books, along with the extension of classes and cancelation of fall break, will come at a price.
“Now, I feel like professors are going to try and cram material, and if every class does that and a student is taking a full course load, it becomes very difficult for them to catch up and keep up,” Sharma said.
One of the first schools to reopen after the hurricane was the UM School of Law, which resumed Sept. 20. Leah Stevenson, currently in her second year of law school, is originally from Houston, Texas, and she evacuated to her hometown after receiving nearly 50 phone calls from her relatives and friends who experienced Hurricane Harvey’s devastation.
Stevenson said, throughout the break, she worked on projects assigned before classes were canceled that were still due when classes resumed. She said even though law school students were some of the first to return to campus, it has been hard to get back into a studious mindset.
“It’s hard to get back into the groove of school and get acclimated to that when there’s so many important things that you could be doing to help your city,” Stevenson said. “It’s hard to go back to school and act like nothing is really happening.”
In an interview with The Miami Hurricane Sept. 14, Provost Jeffrey Duerk alluded to some “tweaks” that could still be made to the academic calendar, including the addition of a class day Dec. 16, a Saturday. However, in a letter emailed out to faculty Sept. 18, Duerk confirmed, “Based on the input of the Faculty Senate and the Deans of remaining Schools/Colleges, and with support of the President,” no extra class days will be added. The email also said it was up to faculty to determine how to use the additional class days.
Many professors, including physics professor Joshua Gunderson, have had to rework scheduled due dates and exam dates because of the extended break. Gunderson teaches physics 101 and said he made accommodations by replacing the final at the end of the semester with three midterm exams. He said he hasn’t heard many complaints from other professors.
“The only thing we’re really giving up is the cumulative final exam, so I think the students will appreciate that,” Gunderson said. “I think most people have been able to come up with relatively straightforward workarounds.”
Monday marked junior Kerstin Yu’s second day back to Miami after nearly a month away. Yu, who had a quiz in her biochemistry class on the first day back, left Miami even before Hurricane Irma’s anticipated trajectory caused UM to cancel classes. She was visiting friends in New York and Pennsylvania over Labor Day weekend and was scheduled to come back, but decided to stay in place because of Irma’s expected trajectory.
Throughout the duration of the unexpected break, Yu, a biology major, spent her time teaching herself material from her physics class. Although her physics professor said she would postpone assignments and restructure the class syllabus, Yu said she still has to worry about being prepared for post-graduate life.
“I’ve been teaching myself over the break because it’s my last semester before I take the MCAT, which is true for a lot of people in my class, so we still need to learn all the information even if our professor decides to take it out of the syllabus,” Yu said. “Basically, all my classes are on hold but our lives aren’t, so we still have to teach ourselves.”
Duerk’s letter encouraged faculty to exemplify values of “creativity, compassion, responsibility and excellence” upon the resumption of classes.
“This semester we will have to balance flexibility with the ways we normally pursue rigor and high quality education,” the letter read.
Leslie Knecht, a chemistry professor who teaches three different classes this semester, said she tried to restructure her syllabi to accommodate students’ needs. She said she decided to keep the same exam dates as before the storm, so students would have had the date in their minds all along. But she said she knows one of the main challenges will be returning to a classroom.
“I’m a little worried of how it’s going to be to get students back and involved,” Knecht said. “I have to find creative ways to refresh.”
For Stevenson, seeing everyone back on campus helped her view the resumption of classes as a step toward normalcy.
“It’s much more normal now that everyone is back in school and that the school is trying their best to try to make everyone feel accommodated,” Stevenson said. “But it still is hard to be back and know that we’re in hurricane season and that we could be uprooted again.”