The University of West Florida is shut down for at least the next two weeks thanks to the possible threat from the novel coronavirus. The bug has caused a drastic reduction in campus activities.
President Martha Saunders gave some familiar-sounding advice while meeting with the local media Tuesday at President’s Hall, an on-campus residential building.
“The campus is very different today; as a response to the coronavirus we have encouraged students to stay away,” said Saunders.
The students will remain off-campus for at least two weeks, to March 30. Saunders says they’re taking COVID-19 very seriously.
“We’re still in business, and our job is to teach college and our job is to provide high-quality education,” said the president. “And we have found a way to do that.”
Instead of in-house instruction, all courses have shifted to online classes. One of the advantages of such instruction, she says, is its flexibility.
“There is an opportunity – actually, a generous opportunity – for one-on-one chats with the facility members; lots of room for tutoring,” said Saunders. “If students have any needs or any questions, they can either ask through the course, or they can go to their advisors or the folks in Student Affairs.”
Saunders also had a message for the students during this unusual time.
“I would ask them to certainly stay focused on their studies – that’s why you’re here,” Saunders said. “This is not an extension of spring break. We’re back to business, it’s just that business is being done a little bit differently. We’re going to finish this semester, and we want them to be with us when we do.”
But not all students left for the break. There remain about 200 who need to be on campus for a variety of reasons.
“Some of them have jobs on campus; some of them have jobs in the community that they need to see to, and some of them really cannot get home at this time,” Saunders said. “And so, our housing and residence life has been really good about accommodating these students’ needs.”
For the students, and for the benefit of campus visitors, Saunders says she’s broken her own anti-poster policy and placed them across campus -- reminding everyone to be careful about COVID-19.
“We have put social distancing advice and just the basic protocols that we’re hearing from the CDC,” said Saunders. “Stay 6 ft. away from people; don’t shake hands, don’t hug. Use a Kleenex if you have to sneeze or cough; throw that Kleenex away [and] wash your hands.”
“Well it certainly has been an interesting turn in this semester, I’ll say that,” said Dan Clark, a UWF freshman and member of the school’s ROTC program.
“It has been interesting to see the transition; however, with the fluidity the staff has approached it, with the consistent notification we have on any sudden changes – and there have been a lot of abrupt changes – it really hasn’t shifted anything too much. The hallways are just more empty,” Clark said.
“I’m in Martin Hall, and having less students around is really weird as a resident assistant,” said senior Virginia Morrison. She adds two current challenges as an RA are helping other students develop their own plans of action, and answering the same questions from them, that she herself is asking.
“Not having the same role in the hall as I normally do; finding a way to do things in order to get paid,” Morrison said. “Also, I’m an auditory learner, so having classes online is going to be a little bit of a struggle because I’m used to having the in-person assistance.”
And there could be other disruptions in the remainder of the school year, compliments of coronavirus. Two of those that could be affected, says UWF president Martha Saunders, are finals and Graduation Day in May.
“Commencement falls into that 60-day period that the CDC has asked us not to have more than 50 around,” said Saunders. “So we’ll be making a decision on commencement very shortly. We’re consulting with the students to get some of their thoughts on a delayed commencement, or how they would feel about that.”
Meanwhile, Escambia County has its first confirmed case of the coronavirus, according to the Florida Department of Health. The man, otherwise unidentified, had been traveling. The Escambia County Emergency Operations Center is opening this morning at Level-2 activation because of COVID-19. The county issued an emergency declaration on Monday. Level-2 is a partial activation, which includes essential emergency support functions related to this type of incident for response and recovery.