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USF Trustees Approve Reopening Plan; Football Workouts To Start Wednesday

Trustees for the University of South Florida approved a plan to gradually reopen the school in the fall. The plan now goes to the State Board of Governors for approval.
Carl Lisciandrello
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Because of COVID-19, the has been closed to all but essential personnel since March, with classes in the last half of the spring and all summer being held online.

That will soon change, as trustees approved a plan Tuesday that gradually reopens the school for the fall semester.

And in a related development, the USF football team announced plans to resume limited on-campus workouts Wednesday.

During both the trustees meeting and afterward to reporters, System President Steven Currall said they’re trying to create a climate at USF that promotes health and safety.

That includes people wearing masks in shared spaces, particularly closed ones, like classrooms, laboratories and offices. They will not be required inside of residence hall rooms.

"We believe that it's just good practice for us to create an environment where our students feel comfortable coming back to campus, where their parents feel comfortable sending their young people to our campus," said Currall.

CORONAVIRUS:  Complete Coverage From WUSF And Health News Florida

Currall presented a lengthy plan that took recommendations from a number of planning teams and the COVID-19 Task Force, which was led by Donna Petersen, dean of the USF College of Public Health.

It was also based off a “ blueprint” issued by the State University System Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 public universities. Feedback from USF faculty, staff, students and other community stakeholders also went into the final product.

Members of the group then took almost 70 minutes worth of questions from trustees on subjects ranging from COVID-19 testing to enforcement of standards to the cost of implementing the plan.

Petersen said that all students, faculty, and staff will be required to complete a baseline symptom survey before returning to campus. Anyone who reports symptoms will be referred for testing.

In addition, all students from outside Florida, as well as those from Florida counties with positivity rates of coronavirus over seven percent, will need to be tested within the two weeks before returning to campus.

Under the plan approved Tuesday, USF will require specific populations to get COVID-19 tests before they return to campus in the fall.
Credit University of South Florida
The Florida Channel
Under the plan approved Tuesday, USF will require specific populations to get COVID-19 tests before they return to campus in the fall.

"We're also asking any student who is intending to live in a residence hall on either the Tampa or St. Petersburg campuses to also be tested within two weeks before coming back to campus and we will take a 10% sample of everyone else," Petersen said.

If anyone tests positive, they will be asked to seek medical assistance and self-quarantine for two weeks before coming to campus. Once on campus, they will be surveyed daily to make sure they are healthy.

Petersen said the university will create isolation spaces for students who live on campus if they test positive, and will work with those who live off campus if the same thing occurs.

If people cannot find free testing before returning to campus, USF will send them a self-administered kit they can return to the university.

Petersen added that once classes restart, a random sample of 10% of students, faculty, and staff will be tested on a weekly basis.

As for classes, those with over 100 students will be required to be held only online at first, while smaller classes will be able to be held in person, online, or as a hybrid of the two.

USF officials pointed out that one-third of classes before the pandemic were delivered online, so such a similar plan now is not new. In addition, the university previously announced that all fall semester classes and final exams will be online only following the Thanksgiving holiday break.

Layouts of classrooms and laboratories will be changed to allow for recommend social distancing. Class syllabi will also reflect the guidelines to protect both students and faculty.

University Police will not be used to enforce compliance with these strategies. Instead, Provost Ralph Wilcox said there will be "zero ambiguity" about what's expected from everyone on campus.

Under the plan approved by trustees, various levels of enforcement will be used to implement USF's risk mitigation strategy. The goal, USF officials say, is to keep students, faculty, and staff safe from COVID-19
Credit University of South Florida
The Florida Channel
Under the plan approved by trustees, various levels of enforcement will be used to implement USF's risk mitigation strategy. The goal, USF officials say, is to keep students, faculty, and staff safe from COVID-19

"We will communicate these expectations with all students, all faculty members, before they return to classes in fall of 2020,” he said. “We fully anticipate that our students, the vast majority of students, will comply.”

The hope, officials said, is that the public health campaign works, and makes people understand if they don’t follow the standards and there’s a spike in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19, they might have to close a campus down again.

UNIVERSITY BEAT: Read the latest about USF and other news on universities in Florida and nationwide

But one aspect of the plan that Currall emphasized to both trustees and reporters was its flexibility.

“This is essentially a contingency model that is designed to allow us to adjust to the epidemiological data that's emerging in our region and around our campuses,” he said. “We've got lots of flexibility built in and can adjust to the developments as they emerge.”

A multi-faceted communication effort to spread the word about the campaign will start next week with a pair of town halls.

It will then extend to multiple emails to the USF community. Once people return to campus, they’ll see signs and banners on all three campuses detailing the plan and encouraging them to wear masks and practice proper hygiene and social distancing.

The plan will be rolled out gradually in four phases, similar to other reopening plans at the national and state level.

While Petersen told trustees phase one would officially start very soon, since USF never technically completely closed, the university has technically been in phase one since March.

The cost of the reopening plan is estimated to be between $16 million and $25 million.

According to officials, that covers personal protective equipment, facility and technology enhancements, cleaning and sanitizing, instructional costs, and testing. It does not cover previously paid COVID-19 related expenses or projected additional costs for the spring 2021 semester.

Nick Trivunovich, USF Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Business and Finance, said most of that cost is expected to be covered by $17.4 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding the university has been authorized to spend.

USF has already received another $17.4 million in federal funding in the form of financial aid for students.

Wilcox pointed out that 32,000 students have already registered for classes. That’s about two-thirds of the students they expect to arrive on campus starting Aug. 24 – about 10 1/2 weeks away.

The USF plan needs to be submitted to the Florida Board of Governors by Friday and will be formally presented by USF officials at the Governors’ meeting on June 23.

Shortly after trustees approved the plan, USF Athletics announced more than 75 members of the football team will return to campus Wednesday for voluntary workouts.

They will work out in small groups of around 10, and their weight equipment will be moved outdoors under tents. Organized practices are still prohibited by the NCAA for all sports.

“We are excited to begin the phased return of student-athletes to campus for voluntary workouts to prepare for competition, starting this week with members of the football team, while we continue to be very mindful of the dangers the current pandemic and prioritize our student-athletes health and safety first,” Vice President of Athletics Michael Kelly said.

In addition to players, 25% of staff and employees, mainly sports medicine, strength and conditioning, facilities, and housekeeping professionals will be allowed to return.

Everyone involved will be tested for COVID-19 before being allowed in the facilities. They also will receive mandatory safety and hygiene training.

Other USF athletic teams will be allowed back on campus in a phased approach this month and next.

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Mark Schreiner has been the producer and reporter for "University Beat" on WUSF 89.7 FM since 2001 and on WUSF TV from 2007-2017.