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UM Students, Faculty Wonder: Is A COVID-19 Shutdown Inevitable?

University of Miami campus
Howard Cohen
Miami Herald
The University of Miami campus in Coral Gables.

As COVID-19 clusters are popping up at universities around the country, some of which have already shifted online, the University of Miami is beginning its own experiment with in-person classes during a pandemic.

Before classes even started at the University of Miami on Monday, a viral TikTok video showed a crowded party in a dorm room — in open violation of the school’s new rules for social distancing and mask wearing.

University administrators said they took quick action to send a message to the rest of the students that flouting the rules would not be tolerated, in some cases evicting students from campus housing.

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But the incident has left the rest of the student body wondering: “How long do you think we’re going to last?” said Griffin Carter, a 20-year-old junior. “And people are like, ‘Oh, I think maybe three weeks, maybe a month.’ A lot of people are skeptical. A lot of people are like, ‘I'd be surprised if we get to October before something pops off.’”

“Every day we all talk about the over and under. How long are we going to be here? How long is this going to last?,” said a sophomore psychology major who did not want to use their name because speaking out might jeopardize their on-campus job as a resident assistant. “We’re going home in two weeks. We’re going home in a month. This isn’t going to last.”

Nkosi Robinson, a 20-year-old junior, returned to Miami from his home in Kingston, Jamaica, with reservations but trusting that the university was taking the right steps to protect students, because President Julio Frenk is a global public health expert.

“My main concern would just be trusting my fellow students to make the right choices,” he said. “It seems everyone is just anticipating that eventually we will be sent back home, like the situations playing out at other major universities.”

The steady stream of reports of COVID-19 clusters and campus closures at other universities around the country have amplified those concerns. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame are high-profile examples of institutions that have already shifted online, either temporarily or for the rest of the semester.

Faculty, students and staff at UM argue the university hasn’t been transparent about positive cases on campus.

“The example of UNC really frightens people at UM,” said a humanities professor who spoke to WLRN under the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “We currently do not have any public-facing numbers for campus. We know students have tested positive, but we don’t know how many, whether those students are on or off campus. I’m extremely concerned we could be in the same position.”

“Anytime there is secrecy revolv[ing] around public health crises, I think that we should be skeptical or wary of the information coming out of those institutions,” said Preston Taylor Stone, a third year doctoral student in the English department who holds leadership positions in graduate student government organizations.

Frenk said a public dashboard should be ready by next week.

“Bear in mind, we just started classes three days ago,” he said, laughing, during an interview Thursday afternoon.

“We're going to be making it public very soon,” he said.

Previously, Frenk has served as a top administrator with the World Health Organization, as Mexico’s minister of health and as the dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The university’s teaching staff, professors and graduate instructors say morale among employees is low. Hundreds of faculty members and graduate student teaching assistants signed a petition demanding the right to choose whether they teach in person or only online, and many say they received no formal response from administration. Frenk told WLRN he has responded to the concerns of faculty and staff during town halls and other communications.

While some who reported that they have an underlying medical condition or that they take care of someone who does were allowed to teach only online, others who cited fear of getting sick had their requests denied.

“We were never really consulted. We weren't really asked what we wanted to do. We were just basically told that we were going to have to teach in person whether we liked it or not,” said history professor Martin Nesvig. “There were certain health exemptions that you could claim if you had one of them. A lot of those conditions are conditions a lot of people don't want to disclose, like HIV and cancer.”

Frenk argued there’s no reason for faculty who have health conditions to hesitate to disclose those to the university, stressing that the information would be confidential.

“You need to tell us why. Otherwise, it’s unmanageable, and we’re failing,” Frenk said.

Frenk said the university “granted practically 100 percent” of requests for accommodations from those who are over 65, have an underlying health condition or have someone in their care who is at high risk for serious complications or death from COVID-19.

If faculty members don’t have those reasons to teach only online, Frenk said it’s their job to provide students with a high-quality, in-person educational experience.

“If it's just a fear, we would have to potentially then allow people not to teach in person because they're afraid of getting in a car, because they might have a car accident,” he said.

“Look, I am teaching," said Frenk, who teaches a course in public health. "I am 66 years old. I could have claimed my exemption, but I don't have any underlying medical condition that's a risk factor. I have others, but they are not a risk factor. I have a bad back. It's not a risk factor for COVID."

“I went. I felt incredibly safe because of all the measures that have been taken.”

Those measures include testing all students before they returned to campus and requiring them to fill out a daily survey of their potential COVID-19 symptoms, a "symptom checker" that triggers more testing in some cases. The university’s own health system is performing the tests for free and returning the results in 48 hours, Frenk said.

Packages including masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are also being distributed to students. Also, student “public health ambassadors” are patrolling campus, employing “positive peer pressure,” Frenk said, to remind their classmates to wear masks, keep their distance and not gather in large groups.

Classrooms have been outfitted with plexiglass separating professors from students, air filters and sound systems to allow faculty members to be heard even while wearing masks, and with students spaced throughout classrooms.

Former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her husband are teaching a course at UM, and she tweeted in approval of the classroom setup.

Some have questioned the university’s motives for reopening, suspecting administrators’ resistance to remote learning is mostly about finances.

“The university knew it would probably have to close anyway, and they just brought people back knowing that so that they could get people's tuition money and housing money,” Stone said.

Another doctoral student and instructor who did not want to use their name because they receive tuition remission and a stipend for their teaching job said: “Lots of us are half-expecting, half-hoping that as long as UM has tuition for the semester and their housing fees for the semester, they’ll let people go home, which is the right thing to do.”

The sophomore resident assistant said they have asthma and a history of double pneumonia but would not be able to afford going to school without the free room and board and stipend that comes with working in campus housing.

“We shouldn’t be here, and they’re putting people’s lives in danger just for the housing money and the tuition money,” the student said.

Frenk adamantly denied these sentiments, arguing that opening is an expensive endeavor that has cost the university millions.

Frenk also argued many students are safer and less likely to get sick on campus, given the enforcement of positive behaviors like mask wearing, than they would be left to their own devices off campus.

“The image of having our own students in apartments literally across the street and us not allowing them on campus — I found that a little bit of an aberration,” he said.

“Our No. 1 priority is to keep our students safe.”

Faculty and students are also concerned about the quality of education under the current conditions.

The humanities professor who did not want their name included in the story said with some students masked and spaced six feet apart in the classroom and others watching on Zoom, there’s little opportunity for interaction among them.

“That really prevents me from doing anything other than a lecture,” the professor said.

A fully online course would have allowed for more discussion, the professor argued.

“In a Zoom classroom, I can break the students into groups. I can see their faces. They can speak directly to one another. That’s impossible in the model that’s being imposed on me now. Students will lose out because of this model which was enforced by administration.”

Carter, the 20-year-old junior, moved to Miami from his home near Chicago in July for the start of the semester. He said his in-person classes are “dead silent.”

“It's kind of just like you show up to class, sit there, and then just leave,” he said.

But still, he said he is grateful the university started in person and is hoping it stays that way. He works in the athletics program and a microbiology lab, so he wouldn’t have access to those facilities if the campus closed.

He has a partial scholarship, he said, but as for other students, “people are paying $52,000 a year,” he said. “They don't want to just sit in their bedrooms at home and just log on to Zoom.”

UPDATE: On Friday, Aug. 21, hours after this story was published, the University of Miami sent an email alerting its community to four confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus. The communication said a group of 51 students are under quarantine.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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