2020 Year in Review: UM community reflects on its challenges amid resiliency

The University of Miami endured a tumultuous year of surprises and hurdles: from responding to the coronavirus pandemic to implementing new health practices, to adapting to society’s new normal.

The university enrolls more than 17,000 students and employs more than 16,000 people across three campuses: the Coral Gables Campus, the Medical Campus in downtown Miami, and the Marine Campus on Virginia Key. Like many universities, UM was tasked with adapting to remote and hybrid learning environments while also striving to mitigate the spread of the virus on its campuses.

The UM community, filled with students, professors, faculty and administrators, weighed in to express their perspective on the overview of the year.

Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami, said he is proud of how the community responded to the urgency of the pandemic and adapted effectively as a response.

“The university had to adapt its modes of learning, research, and health care delivery, the community never stopped providing education, breakthroughs, or service,” said Frenk. “The university was also able to mitigate financial losses in a timely manner without compromising the sustainability or strength of the institution.”

Redesigning campus for the COVID pandemic

For on-campus learning, UM geared up for the fall semester by placing signs and markers across campus reminding students and the entire community to practice social distancing, wash their hands frequently and to wear a mask on campus at all times.

Senior Cassandra Garcia swabs her nose for a Covid-19 test in Pavia Garage on Sept. 22, 2020.
Senior Cassandra Garcia swabs her nose for a Covid-19 test in Pavia Garage on Sept. 22, 2020. Photo credit: Ally Gaddy

“This has been the most challenging semester that my colleagues and I have experienced in our entire academic career,” said Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “While many universities around the country have preferred to close their campuses, under the leadership of President Frenk, a global authority in public health, we have chosen to confront the multiple challenges that Covid-19 has presented to us. Thanks to the determination and discipline of our students, faculty, and staff, we were able to successfully balance our commitments to safety and academic excellence.”

The seating areas within the food court and other on-campus eateries were closed off. Students were also encouraged to utilize the daily symptom checker while on campus to spot any possible indication of the virus. Classrooms experienced a wide adjustment as well, with some seats being blocked off due to the 6-foot-rule, and students had a transparent plastic screen in front of them for added protection.

Senior Joshua Dos Santos says the university did the best it could in keeping COVID cases to a minimum by going fully remote at the end of spring semester and then taking the necessary measures to reopen campus in the fall.

“The university had to do what they had to do to limit the amount of COVID cases on campus,” said Dos Santos, a criminology major.

Abigail Adeleke, student government president, said that this year was a learning experience for the entire UM community and the world. Although she said it was challenging, she said that she is thankful for 2020 for making her a better leader within the community and working alongside other students to help tackle issues and find solutions.

“One fact that keeps me hopeful is that diamonds are made under pressure,” said Adeleke. “When we go through difficult times in history and in our personal lives we become more resilient, more compassionate, and more capable of the next difficulty. I am thankful for 2020 for opening my eyes to the world around me but also for making me a better leader.”

Going remote or remaining in person

Students and faculty could decide if they wanted to spend their semester fully remote, hybrid or in person.

According to the Office of the Provost, each semester the university offers approximately 4,500 course sections. In the fall, approximately 1/3 of the course sections were conventional face-to-face, approximately 1/3 were in hybrid format where students normally had one day per week in the classroom with the faculty, and approximately 1/3 were online.

In an effort to reduce campus density, approximately 20 courses that the university anticipated would have high enrollments were converted to online format. The 1/3 fraction that was online was driven by 25 percent of the fall semester instructors being granted online teaching accommodations due to pre-existing conditions for them being at high risk as defined by the CDC. Some faculty teach more than one course.

“They didn’t rush into the semester; they took their time to establish a plan that would benefit everyone involved,” said Dos Santos, 21.“It makes me happy knowing the university did their jobs in making campus life and my role as a student less stressful.”

Geethika Kataru, a sophomore double majoring in political science and motion pictures, said the university has done an excellent job in keeping the staff and students safe during the pandemic this semester. Kataru, who is 20 years old, was a hybrid student this semester living in Eaton Residential College.

“I believe that UM has done a great job comparatively to other colleges at contact tracing and keeping people isolated,” Kataru said. “I’ve heard some stories at other schools of students leaving quarantine early or not following proper isolation guidelines, and I am glad that our school has prioritized, ensuring that these guidelines are followed.”

Yearning for more human interaction

Senior vocal performance major Emma Skowron said she missed having one-on-one interaction with her professors. Although she resided on campus, many of her music classes were held virtually.

“For singing it just created a lot of obstacles in my classes so I wasn’t able to have the performance experience one would normally have,” said Skowron, who took online and in-person classes.

Despite this, 21-year-old Skowron, said she felt that the school adequately kept students informed during the pandemic.

“I thought the voice department and Frost did a good job of keeping us updated on policies and what our semester would look like as they had that information,” Skowron said.

As a nursing major, Sierra Frey was scheduled to take in-person labs and clinicals off campus at nearby hospitals. But COVID-19 meant that two of those off-campus classes had to be changed.

“When they first announced to us that we would not be working in the hospital setting, I think a lot of us got stressed out about how we would learn the skills we needed to know,” said Frey, a junior.

Instead of going into the local hospitals, Frey experienced many of the real-life situations in the classroom or on virtual simulations.

Lost experiences felt within UM community

Although she was learning all of the information, Frey said it was not the same experience she had imagined.

“It does feel like I missed out on the true experience,” Frey said. “Also, each day just felt super repetitive.”

She compliments the school on the safety precautions that were taken.

“Nursing did a good job with seat assignments and making sure we were all 6 feet apart,” Frey said. “They also made us clean our desks before and after each class.”

Frey plans on coming back next semester and hopes to get into the hospital to experience real clinicals.

Freshman Nyayaongah Gony finished high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, under the heavy cloud of COVID-19 restrictions. And as the pandemic continued to ravage the nation, she realized that her first year in college would be much like her last weeks of high school—with masks, social distancing and remote learning.

“I didn’t think coming to college would be that much different,” said Gony, a communications major. But the visions high school students have of going off to college to stretch their wings and experience a sense of independence were blurred once Gony arrived on campus.

“I am disappointed I had to start my first year of college in a pandemic because I wanted to be able to go out and have fun,” said Gony, 18. “I mean we are in Miami after all.”

Unsociable environment causes students to act out

The university’s adjustments did experience pushback from some members within the UM community. With the decision to open campus for in-person classes, some students expressed concerns of others jeopardizing their safety by holding and attending parties. There were also possible concerns of students attending super-spreader events outside of campus and possibly contracting the virus and coming back to campus.

The social scene was negatively impacted due to the virus, said Paul Spada, a brother of the Pi Kappa Phi.

Spada says living in the frat house helped him from becoming completely lonely, but there were also downsides.

“When one person got sick, the whole house had to quarantine,” said Spada. “We couldn’t have anyone over, and it was a never-ending cycle of coming in and out of isolation.”

In the month of UM’s reopening, a video was posted on Tik Tok showing freshmen on camera partying in a room at one of the residential colleges on campus, which violated the university’s social distancing guidelines.

The following month, there were reports of fraternities having parties off campus in their frat houses, this sparked an investigation. It ultimately ended with the suspension for Sigma Chi (Sig Chi) and probation orders for Pi Kappa Alpha (Pike).

Alley Masocco, a senior religion and healthcare major, says students are at fault for many of the university’s COVID cases.

“The university really did well following COVID guidelines; it was the student body who didn’t take care of themselves throughout the course of the semester,” said Masocco.

Emphasizing the importance of wearing masks and maintaining social distance, UM outlined the policies of acceptable behavior.

Masocco, 22, said she understands that Halloween is a holiday that people enjoy, but it wasn’t the year for people to go out and party.

“It was definitely a challenging semester academically and socially, the school did what they could,” said Masocco. “It was up to the students to follow university guidelines.”

Rebuilding campus interactions and relations

Housing and Residential Life continued to take care of students who were in isolation at the end of the fall semester, with meals and support services provided throughout the length of their isolation until they were cleared through Student Health Service according to Patricia A Whitely, vice president for student affairs.

As of Dec. 10, the cumulative total of coronavirus cases at the university is 1,502—with 62 active cases, two new cases and 1440 people who have recovered.

Shirley Gelman, vice president of student government, said that despite the challenges at the university, many student organizations strived to create socially distant events like watch parties, movie nights, and classroom experiences to still foster a sense of community and socialness on campus.

“Although there are many horrible things going on in the world, I think our school and campus community did its best to provide a social, safe, healthy, and engaging environment,” said Gelman. “We all learned a valuable skill which is adaptation. This is something our school has become very good at through the socially distant events that we held throughout the semester. We are always evolving to find the best solutions.”

Students complain about increase in tuition

Some members of the UM community also expressed discontent with the increase in tuition amidst a global pandemic. Many suggested that the administration does not value the safety and well-being of students and operated in-person due to monetary gain.

Junior finance major Matt DiRico said UM’s tuition does not justify the learning experience this semester.

“I believe they’re charging too much for a product that isn’t currently living up to expectations because of the COVID situation,” DiRico said.

Kaylin Baer, a junior in the Miami Herbert Business School, said it is disheartening that UM values people’s money over their well-being.

According to the University of Miami, the tuition rate for the Fall semester was $26,040, or $52,080 for the academic year. This represents a 3.3% increase from the previous fall. In response to the COVID-19 financial impact on our students and families, the university said that they maintained its commitment to meet financial need and increased the amount of scholarships awarded this fall.

University plans ahead for the spring semester

Looking ahead, the university plans to continue with both on-campus and virtual classes for the Spring semester. Social distancing and the mask mandate remain in effect on campus until further notice from administration. Students were vocal about how they will endure next semester differently based on their experiences and setbacks from the fall.

“We’ve faced many hardships because of the pandemic, and as always our top priority is the well-being, health and safety of the UM community,” Bachas said. “When we return in the spring, I’m sure we will remain engaged, involved and supportive of each other as we navigate this crisis together.”

One of the things Emma Skowron, a senior vocal performance major, said she will do differently when she returns next semester is to be more assertive about people around her if they have been exposed to the virus.

“I think I just want to have more open conversations with the people I see about how careful they are being so that I feel safe,” said Skowron, 21.

According to the Office of the Provost, the spring semester will be very different from the fall. Currently, the university is projecting about 58% of the course sections being face-to-face, about 8% being hybrid/blended, and about 33% being online, due to some faculty being eligible for online accommodations due to existing high-risk factors. There may be small variations over the next eight weeks as instructors or their family members may receive new diagnoses affecting their ability to safely be in the community.

Next semester, the university will be offering some course sections online and also in face-to-face modalities to provide more flexibility; this would not have been common in the fall semester.

Sense of resilience on campus

“Though we have faced many challenges this academic year, I have witnessed immense perseverance and resiliency from our faculty, tech-support teams, student public health ambassadors and UM staff,” said Leonidas Bachas, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Sophomore business administration major Jesse Brenner said he felt comfortable the entire semester and will be returning to campus in the spring.

“No doubt I’m coming back,” Brenner said. “I am feeling more and more comfortable each day here, so I see no reason why I can’t come back in the spring.”

Ryan C. Holmes, the associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said he is looking forward to the spring semester and is proud of the university’s resilience and alertness throughout the year.

“The word that comes to mind for me is resilience,” said Holmes. “As a total campus community, we chose to meet all happenings head-on. We did not avoid the pandemic, we planned as best we could and executed in ways unseen. We had many successes in opening the campus and keeping it open. We will continue to work towards next semester.”

Kaylin Baer, a junior in the Miami Herbert Business School, says she hopes that next semester is like what it was before the pandemic wreaked havoc on campus. She said the university community can’t live in fear of the virus forever and wants her normal college experience back.

“While the year invited more catastrophic conditions than we might have ever anticipated, I am particularly proud of our community for imagining and pursuing better ways to teach, to connect, and to thrive,” said Karin Gwinn Wilkins, dean of the School of Communication. ”Our instructors and students inspired thoughtful and insightful pedagogical practices that navigated a variety of hybrid circumstances. We will conclude this year with a sincere appreciation.”

One U stands together

Frenk said that while challenges remain as the community finds itself facing a third global surge of the pandemic, he is very proud of how students, faculty, and staff have demonstrated their commitment to one another and to the U

“Thanks to everyone’s hard work, we end 2020 having achieved our goals,” said Frenk. “We kept one another safe. As expected, we saw cases of COVID-19 on campus, but we managed to avoid in-classroom transmission of the virus. We saw minimal hospitalizations and, gratefully, no fatalities among students or employees resulting from the pandemic. Second, we preserved the continuity of our mission.”

Althea Castro, Emilia Darquea, Brianna Jackson, Max Jenkins, Nick Tobin, Summer Xia, Sophie DeBiase-Harris, Samuel Gonzalez, Jarius Howard, Dante Johnson, Morgan Ledenko contributed to the reporting of this story.