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Opinion: USF’s Successful Balance of Safety and Education During COVID-19

Universities and academic institutions across the U.S. tentatively opened their doors late August to a strange new world. Campuses, once teeming with students and staff, are ghost towns plastered with safety arrows directing people where to go. Students sit appropriately, but disproportionately, from one another in lecture halls as professors grapple with curriculum change.

Some universities have converted entirely to online learning while other institutions bring back only a handful of students per semester; freshmen and sophomores in the fall, juniors and seniors in the spring. However, like most American colleges and universities, the University of South Florida has maintained a mixture of remote and in-person classes across all three campuses.

For Fall 2020, the University of South Florida has maintained its average enrollment status of 50,000+ students, with only a slight decline of 0.2% compared to Fall 2019. However, the number of USF students living on all three campuses has been cut nearly in half.

This semester, USF Tampa residencies are home to 3556 students compared to the 6184 students housed in Fall 2019. Similarly, USF St. Petersburg went from 582 to 308 students living on campus this semester. According to USF’s Director of Media Relations, Adam Freeman, it should be noted that some beds have been reserved for isolation and that some double-occupancy rooms have been converted to single-occupancy rooms as part of the school’s COVID-19 prevention plan.

Aside from this slight financial hit, COVID-19 has not stopped USF from providing students the optimal college experience while ensuring a safe environment for learning.

To keep campuses safe, USF requires students to take a daily symptom check if they plan to be on campus that day. Campus security or staff may randomly request that a student provides their symptom status for review. Since this system of self-diagnosis relies entirely on the responsibility of students, staff, and faculty, USF requires everyone on campus to wear a mask and to practice social distancing. However, some classes rely heavily on interaction and collaboration between students.

For instance, I take Theater and Culture with Professor Canary every Tuesday. Typically, the three-hour lecture is a mixture of learning and performing theater to help students collaborate and better engage with the medium. But, like many teachers, Canary must put the safety and health of his students at the forefront of his curriculum, creating the occasional hurdle in the free flow of education. Similarly, remote learning has its share of difficulties. Aside from the occasional technical hiccup, remote learning can be difficult for teachers to keep students engaged.

Despite these precautions and disruptions within the academic community, USF has done a more than adequate job at keeping students safe and updated. Personally, I’ve noticed an influx of communication, compassion, and understanding between members of the USF community.

Professors may provide leniency because they understand some students are struggling financially, emotionally, or healthily. Students exercise patience in person and online because they understand the challenges professors face with curriculum change and the unfamiliar format of remote teaching. These unspoken understandings between the USF community has, in a way, connected us on a social (and distant) level. The only issue worth considering is whether tuition should be discounted for remote learners.

According to the Council on Foreign Affairs, COVID-19 has greatly impacted America’s industry on higher learning. Facing a decline in enrollment and revenue, some colleges have resorted to layoffs. Experts argue this disruption of the education industry may diminish our competitive edge as the globe’s leading hegemon.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, however, experts believe this disruption within the higher education industry may provide a necessary market adjustment. Since many prospective and returning students would rather take a gap year instead of paying full tuition for remote learning, colleges will have no choice but to reflect on whether profit maximization is worth a national decline in education.

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