By Austin Pert, contributing columnist
Since the University of Miami first committed to reopen back in May, there has been a rise in the number of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in South Florida, causing people to question the university’s decision to reopen in August.
A petition signed by more than 500 professors and graduate students aims to get administration to give professors a remote option, and many students are opting for distance learning this fall. President Julio Frenk told CNN Monday night he is expecting around 30 percent of students to be remote. These concerns are justified.
However, UM’s protocols are more than sufficient to justify at least a hybrid approach to on-campus learning this fall. While Covid-19 must be taken extremely seriously, members of the university community should also take a deep breath and consider a few basic facts about the school’s plan.
First, welcoming students back to campus and having some in-person learning does not amount to a laissez-faire environment where individuals can expect pre-pandemic normality. Frenk stressed in a statement Monday that the decision to reopen is not a “false dichotomy,” and it is far more complex than a binary choice along the lines of whether to keep everything completely closed or allow a total reopening. Under the administration’s blueprint, the Coral Gables campus will look and operate exponentially differently than what people have grown to expect.
Anyone who has read the reopening plan knows that face coverings will be mandatory on campus no matter where one is—both indoors AND outdoors—with private residences being the only exceptions. All indoor events are canceled until November at the earliest, and classrooms will be spaced out to ensure safe distances among those learning and teaching. Campus life as we know it may be dangerous if unchanged, but you can bet that it has been and will continue to be reimagined to the fullest. These cautions will work if people follow the guidelines, just as Frenk said the medical campus was able to keep their caseload low by following the same regulations.
These day-to-day changes are needed to ensure a safe return to campus because many of UM’s operations cannot simply be moved to Zoom and considered an acceptable substitute. While lecture-based courses can be effectively conducted remotely, interactive and lab-centric sections must be held face-to-face or via a hybrid format.
Courses such as feature news reporting, nursing clinicals and architectural design are just a chosen few activities that will not work through distance learning. Extracurricular activities such as UMTV for broadcasting students and research projects for those in the sciences—which are huge components of students’ resumes and necessary for secure futures after graduation—also require an in-person campus presence.
Large intro classes can have more online elements, but many of us need to be on campus in order to be productive in our respective disciplines. Other on-campus resources such as the libraries, music studios and academic resource centers are needed for many students to salvage anything from the fall term.
We must also consider the facts surrounding South Florida’s virus spike. It is currently July. The on-campus semester will last three and a half months through late November. The reality now does not reflect the reality for the fall ahead. Just as the Northeast experienced a rough spring in regard to the coronavirus, things calmed by summer. Covid19-projections.com—an online model run by an MIT-educated data scientist which has been accurate to date—projects that the reproduction number (R) has fallen below one in Florida and that daily deaths will peak and begin declining before the start of the semester.
The number of tests coming back positive in Florida and Miami-Dade County is also starting to fall slightly. During Frenk’s appearance on CNN Monday, he credited these improvements to harsher municipal restrictions and expects these trends to continue. And in spite of reports of overwhelmed heath care systems in the Miami area, the UHealth network has not been overwhelmed, Frenk said.
This data suggests some learning can proceed in face-to-face format and will be even safer to conduct as the fall proceeds. In a worst-case scenario where the university were to hold off on in-person classes starting as planned, students could still head to campus with the expectation that a new normal could be established within a few weeks when conditions permit.
There is no doubt though that the privilege of returning to campus also comes with responsibility. Struct guidelines will be in place for anyone on university property; student ambassadors will be hired to encourage healthy habits; and the school has committed to suspend students that violate policies. I will commit to making these sacrifices along with the rest of the student population because I feel it is necessary to do whatever it takes to be back in Coral Gables as soon as possible. Another semester of doing everything through Zoom is not a feasible alternative for many students, so us Canes should turn to the college’s reopening plan as the best option for the months ahead.
Austin Pert is a senior sports writer at The Miami Hurricane. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured photo by photo editor Jared Lennon.