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COVID On Campus: University Of West Florida

First Week of School 2020
Morgan Givens
University of West Florida
Students walk about campus to class and study as part of the first week of the Fall 2020 semester.

In our third and final “COVID on Campus” report, we visit with Martha Saunders – President of the University of West Florida.

For Saunders, fighting COVID-19 in general and the Delta variant in general has become part of the university’s overall mission.

“And the mission is: to provide high-quality [a] graduate and undergraduate education; we have been challenged in the last year, and how we do that, but it’s still got to be done,” she said.

Her message to the UWF administration and faculty is that they know what needs to be taught, and they can assess how things are learned — that’s the challenge today.

“One size does not fit all; we’re going to have to adapt, based on the environmental conditions we’re in; the same way we adapt when we have hurricanes,” Saunders said. “This [virus] has hung on longer than we thought. I really wish we were starting out the year where a student’s biggest concern is finding a parking spot.”

UWF officials are asking and expecting, but not mandating, the wearing of face coverings in campus buildings. Outdoors, for now, appears to be relatively safe.

“We do have a lot of outdoor activities planned for ‘Return to School-Argo Arrival,’ and as far as social distancing, that kind of comes naturally,” said Saunders. “And while we’re not making statements on that, we would expect people to stay away from folks that they think might be sick.”

A year and a half into the pandemic, Saunders says they have learned lessons which are being used in devising today’s COVID plan, plus any changes that have to be made on the fly.

“When all of this began, we didn’t know anything about anything,” Saunders said. “And so we have learned that things can get better, because they did. But we also know that there’s a spike now, we know that the local hospitals are imploring people to get vaccinated. We’re leaning in on that communication as well.”

One back-to-school activity is set for Saturday, September 11 is the first-ever Argonauts football game played on campus at Pen Air Field, against Southwest Baptist. Saunders says the advantage there, is that the game will be outdoors.

“There will be lots and lots of space for people to tailgate on campus; for them to mingle without being jammed in together,” said Saunders. “But we are looking at that. We’re also waiting for guidance on how we test our athletes.”

However, with the Delta variant, no plan, however well-conceived, can be cast in stone. Saunders says what’s valid today, might change a couple of weeks from now.

“And so we’re trying to make sure that people have the best advice; we do pay attention to the Florida Department of Health guidance,” she said. “We pass that along, we urge people to follow that advice. And when that advice changes, we’ll make sure people know about that.”

In March, 2020, at the start of the pandemic, UWF closed down except for very few exceptions. Saunders says a repeat of that is not even in the conversation.

“Now is more just, ‘COVID is with us — it is a factor in our daily life’ just as heat or cold or rain for floods or locusts — if they show up,” laughs Saunders. “In all of those things as well we have to adapt, and we will do that. We have a mission, and that’s what we’re headed for.”

For now, UWF faculty, staff and students are “strongly urged” to get vaccinated.

“Indoors, if everybody’s in a mask, we should be fine,” she adds.