Florida’s public universities – including West Florida – are telling their students to stay away from the campuses for at least two weeks after the end of spring break, because of coronavirus.
The Board of Governors made the call on Wednesday. While this is voluntary at this time, it’s possible it will become mandatory at some point. Universities are urged to prepare now.
“There was a strong emphasis on a unified action, so that one university’s not going in one direction and another’s going in the other; and all guided by the best advice we could get from health organizations,” said UWF President Dr. Martha Saunders. Plans are to resume in-classroom courses on March 30. But she says that’s not a hard target date.
“Certainly circumstances could push it back, [but] right now that’s we’re planning for,” Saunders said. “It’s a very fluid environment, very dynamic environment. And we’re watching every day to see how things change. And we’ll be ready for the change.”
One of the major changes is transitioning face-to-face classroom instruction to online. Saunders says that’s part of the overall preparedness plan in case of any interruption. And it’s driven by what she calls an “E-learning shell” that’s faculty-activated.
“Within that shell, faculty can record their lectures that can be viewed later; they can have chat rooms, they can do all kinds of things instantly,” said Saunders. “It is a very user-friendly platform. Even faculty who typically only teach face-to-face can learn it pretty quickly.”
To get faculty members who don’t use computers that often up to speed, a boot camp was held this week by the school’s instructional designers.
“You do use a different set of muscles for remote learning, because you don’t have the advantage of this inter-personal, non-verbal feedback that you get when you’re face-to-face,” Saunders said. “[It] doesn’t mean you can’t do it effectively, it just means it’s different.”
If there’s any silver lining in the COVID-19 outbreak, it could be that faculty who are not that computer-savvy are learning new ways to teach through online and remote learning courses.
“I think there’s a great asset in agility and adaptability; and it gives our faculty a wonderful opportunity to learn different methods of delivery,” said Saunders.
Universities not yet on spring break are being instructed by the Board of Governors to move to "remote instruction" as soon as possible. Meanwhile, there’s a more intense cleaning program at UWF in areas of housing and food services, among others. Saunders says not all students headed out to spring break.
“Some of our students have no place else to go; they live in the residence halls,” said Saunders. “And so the residence halls will be open – again, much more rigorous cleaning regimen and protocols going on there. Dining services will still be available, and student services will still be available for those students who are here.”
UWF Athletics announced Thursday that it will follow an NCAA advisory panel, and close Argonaut sporting events to the general public because of COVID-19. Scheduled baseball and softball home games will continue to be broadcast online, along with media coverage.
“We have a lot of fans who just love Argo athletics – and I’m one of them,” Saunders said. “Many of our events are streamed, so our fans can still watch it even if they’re not there in person. I think that we’ll be able to satisfy the baseball fan, without endangering the baseball fan.”
UWF football begins spring drills on March 17, and the practices will be closed to the public.
But UWF is not a 2,200-acre island when it comes to coronavirus. President Martha Saunders says they’re working with outside agencies in trying to find ways to guard against the disease.
“Our emergency operation folks stay in constant touch; we’re always working with the school systems in taking guidance – especial our student health services from the department of health,” said Saunders. “We’re trying to find that perfect spot in the middle that is not creating panic, but yet is using all due caution.”
In one of its first actions against coronavirus, UWF suspended travel last week to five countries among the hardest-hit — Iran, China, Italy, Japan and South Korea — until further notice.