University leaders host town halls to share plans about the fall semester

The University of Miami Coral Gables campus. 
By Jennifer Palma Sanchez and Amanda Perez

The University of Miami Coral Gables campus. 

University leaders host town halls to share plans about the fall semester

By Jennifer Palma Sanchez and Amanda Perez
During Tuesday’s virtual events, members of the University of Miami leadership discussed the essential steps that will be taken to safely resume campus activities.

During two virtual town halls held Tuesday afternoon, members of the University of Miami leadership and experts from UHealth held a candid conversation with a broad audience that included faculty, staff, students, and families about the plans to return to campus this fall.  

Opening the discussions, President Julio Frenk shared that 2020 has been met with an intersection of three related, but distinct crises.

“We’re facing a public health emergency, along with the economic emergency that was triggered by the pandemic, and in the midst of the challenges, a third crisis has emerged from the tragic death of another Black life at the hands of law enforcement,” said Frenk. “Our University has a critical role to play in the search for solutions to address these three crises and the complex way in which they actually interact with each other now.” 

The following is additional information discussed during the town halls. 

Virtual town hall for faculty and staff 

The four pillars

Frenk reiterated the importance of the University’s four pillars upon resuming campus activities.

“A key point will be to enforce the use of the mask, that will be absolutely critical and a teaching moment for our students. We need to understand that wearing a mask certainly protects you but it's mostly a duty to others because its main function is to protect others,” he shared.  

In an effort to proactively protect many populations, Frenk also explained why the University community will be required to get the flu shot. “This is the first time that these two viruses are going to be coexisting and we don’t know how they interact,” he shared. “I think it's a very wise idea to be protected against one of the two, which is the seasonal influenza.” Frenk also stated that the flu shot has been a requirement for the medical campus for some time and that the requirement will now be extended to all campuses.  

Reimagined classroom and office settings

Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, and Jacqueline Travisano, executive vice president for business and finance and chief operating officer, shared  some of the tactics that have been implemented throughout many campus locations and what many faculty and staff members can expect upon returning. Through the identification of new classroom spaces, use of hybrid course formats, increased personal protection, and enhanced technology, Duerk noted that students and faculty will have new opportunities to learn in safe environments. Additionally, Travisano explained how campus signage, plexiglass and wellness shields, enhanced disinfecting measures, and “return to campus kits” will ensure that social distancing and CDC guidelines are followed.  

Testing and tracing

Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director for the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and Erin Kobetz, vice provost for research, provided guidance and details on the steps that are currently being taken and will continue to be implemented when students return to campus. Nimer detailed the various strategies and guidelines for testing both symptomatic and asymptomatic members of the University community, echoing the importance of contract tracing and tele-vigilance through the work of UHealth experts. “Tracking and tracing are essential components that are integral to our plan,” said Kobetz. She went on to explain that tele-vigilance will allow for enhanced remote follow-up from medical experts for those who have tested positive and remain in isolation.  

Who will return?

While Duerk and Travisano shared details surrounding the diligent work that has been done to modify spaces, calendars, and life on campus, they also addressed questions surrounding the return of the greater campus community—including faculty and staff with concerns. “Faculty have been given the opportunity to request modifications to their course,” said Duerk. “We're currently starting the process of working with the deans, in terms of how we can achieve, to the best possible extent, the desires of our faculty members.” he added. Travisano said that deans and vice presidents are currently reviewing work-from-home arrangements that may extend beyond August.

Watch the faculty and staff town hall here.

Virtual town hall for students and their families

 Frenk, Duerk, Travisano, and Kobetz were also joined by Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for student affairs and Howard Anapol, director for Student Health Services, along with nearly 3,000 participants for the town hall geared to students and their families. 

A new way of learning

Duerk highlighted a strategy the University is working on to give every student the option to take their classes online during the fall semester. “We recognize that students who have preexisting conditions and are international students may not be able to return to the U.S. We believe that virtually all of our courses will be available synchronously and asynchronously in the fall, in addition to the face-to-face and blended formats,” he said. “We want to ensure that this is a seamless and coordinated process and positive experience for every student.” 

Contact tracing

Kobetz ensured the University community that the institution has an abundance of testing capacity. “We just opened three new testing sites on our Coral Gables Campus, and we also have contact tracing already in place. We initiated this work early in March, and to date we have traced over 3,000 individuals with 96 percent response rate,” Kobetz said. “We also recently started transitioning some of that work to an online platform that gives us an even greater operational capacity. Anybody who tests positive will be required to participate in contact tracing, and their close contacts will be notified and navigated to testing within five to seven days after that initial exposure. We believe this will provide the pillars of a robust plan to ensure that we are doing the best to [maintain] the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff.” 

Safe student life

Whitely outlined plans for a safe return for students living in shared spaces. The number of students in some residential halls has been reduced, she pointed out. “We are doing as much as we can to sanitize every shared space, but the students have to do their part, too. They have to make sure that ’Canes care for each other. I think we have a really good plan, but everyone has to do their part to make it work,” she added. 

Shared spaces

Travisano took the time to explain the precautions that are being taken in the dining halls, library, gym, and other public spaces. “When you return to campus, you’re going to see new signage throughout the grounds to remind everyone on campus of the current CDC guidelines. We are also installing ultraviolet lights in the air-conditioning units throughout our buildings on campus,” she said. For dining options, she noted that “resident and retail food service locations are expected to resume their regular schedules; however, some retail locations may be open for an expanded menu of takeout to mitigate physical interaction. We will also increase more outside seating.” 

Ensuring proper treatment

Anapol addressed parents, telling them that their children will get proper care if diagnosed with COVID-19. “For students who test positive, we will provide medical evaluation and proper treatment. We have also reserved rooms on campus and at local hotels for students who need to quarantine themselves and isolate. Assistance will be provided by home health aides, as well,” he said. “Students who reside off campus will be instructed on how to isolate themselves from roommates. In addition to the UHealth Tower on our medical campus, there are multiple community hospitals that are also well equipped to take care of COVID patients at all levels of care. We will remain in close contact with them in order to direct students to the most appropriate facility.” 

Watch the town hall for students and families here.

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