A month ago, University of Florida President Dr. Kent Fuchs said his strategy in dealing with COVID-19 was to “lock ourselves in place and outlast the virus.”
But the impact that would have on students, research and the economy would be too devastating, he said.
During the weekly Gainesville Town Hall meeting on May 13th, Fuchs described that his mindset has changed.
“We’re going to have to learn how to live with COVID-19 in Gainesville, in Alachua County and worldwide,” Fuchs said, and referred to the fact that UF Health has world experts in epidemiology, some of whom are doing modeling for leaders in Washington, D.C.
Those are the experts who will be guiding UF’s reopening, details of which have not officially been announced.
Fuchs said UF is, “Gradually opening up the campus to our employees. They are going through a process of screening, all of them are getting the opportunity to be tested. And they will follow strict guidelines where they work including wearing a mask and social distancing and sanitation.”
That is the first step in what Fuchs said will become a model of operating businesses and learning institutions while living with COVID-19.
"Restore those things at the University of Florida that we cherish like effective education of the students.
“We are absolutely convinced that through the programs of screening and testing and tracing and very robust, rigorous work habits and the way we are going to be setting up work spaces, we’ll be able to."
The next phase will be the return of the student body, Fuchs said. "Let's do it guided by our health experts."
"We know they’re coming back because they’ve signed leases at a higher rate than they did a year ago," said Fuchs. "We’ve have more acceptances than we’ve had in the past.
“And even though we told our students it’s not until July that we’re going to be announcing what instruction looks like, they’ve said that they’re tired of having their mothers tell them to make their beds, and they’re coming to Gainesville.
As the student population returns from all over the country and the world and from hot spots where COVID-19 had the most impact such as Miami and New York City, Fuchs said UF will be vigilant with testing and screening those students to make sure they don’t have COVID-19. He added that because a majority of students live off campus, landlords will have to have the same policy.
UF Human Resources will be making arrangements with employees who have underlying health issues so that they can work safely from home or make other arrangements.
One caller said she was concerned 50,000 students would be returning to the area en mass, and that they might introduce COVID-19 back into the community.
“We are focused on a phased-in very slow deliberate approach to the return to campus and the last stage of that is bringing the students back,” said Santa Fe College President Dr. Paul Broadie.
“All of that will involve ensuring we follow the CDC guidelines closely.”
People will be wearing masks, sneeze guards will be installed, and PPE is being ordered for staff and students, Broadie said.
“Our institution will not look the same as it did before COVID-19,” Broadie said and described it as having smaller class sizes, social distancing within classrooms, and a combination of remote and on-campus working.
“We have an emergency response team that works on a regular basis to monitor the trajectory of the virus,” he said, and added that SFC has a comprehensive plan for returning to campus.
“We are looking at testing individuals as they return to work,” he said and there will be a requirement of temperature check.
SFC is instituting a professional development component that will educate staff about COVID-19 and the safety protocols to prevent its spread.
Broadie envisions a combination of in-person and virtual instruction. “A good number of our students are here or they are coming from the state of Florida,” he said.
We have not made a decision regarding the Fall at the moment,” Broadie said. "But we’re slowing re-opening in preparation of Fall."
President Fuchs agreed that the return of thousands of students will have an impact on Alachua County.
“I’ll be frank,” Fuchs said. “It scares me to know that 54,000 students are going to be showing up here in a matter of weeks. They’ll be walking around campus, hanging out at Plaza of the Americas and Turlington Plaza. The teaching part will be easier than controlling the behavior off campus.”
Both Fuchs and Broadie commented that they felt Gainesville is one of the safest places to be during the pandemic.
“I can’t think of any city, any county, any state I’d rather be in than right here in Gainesville in the midst of a pandemic,” Fuchs said. “The response of elected officials has been measured, it has been science based, data based.
“They have threaded the needle between keeping everyone safe and secondly, understanding that people’s livelihood and well being is at stake here.
“I echo President Fuch’s comments,” Broadie said, and added that SFC stands with the city, and stands with the University of Florida to create new jobs and new opportunities.
“To watch how individuals mobilized and unified together is a testament to the value we all share caring about each other," Dr. Broadie said.
“A pandemic is not going to stop us from ensuring that our students achieve their goals.”