After completing the spring 2020 semester virtually, students returned to the Coral Gables Campus in August for the fall 2020 semester. PHOTO: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Collaboration was key for University in 2020

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Collaboration was key for University in 2020

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Students, faculty, and staff adapted to a new way of learning, teaching, and working spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number stood at seven back in January. That’s how many cases of a mysterious new virus, believed to have started in the Chinese province of Hubei, had officially been recorded in the United States. 

On the University of Miami’s Coral Gables Campus, junior Abigail Adeleke had just returned from winter break, thrusting herself into a run for the Student Government presidency, which she would capture. “I remember being so focused on the campaign and the whole process while at the same time thinking about my studies,” she recalled. 

COVID-19 was still only a blip on her radar. But that would quickly change, as positivity rates and deaths across the nation began to spike. February would see 24 official cases in the U.S., then, nearly 190,000 in March, the month the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic. “And that’s when it really started to become real for me,” said Adeleke. 

Real not just for her, but for thousands of other University of Miami students, as well as scores of faculty and staff members who would see the year 2020 begin like any other but end like no other. 

A Challenging Year 

Live, in-person campus events were canceled. University officials, acting on the rapid spread of the virus in South Florida, made the tough but prudent decision to send students home in March for the rest of the spring semester, moving classes online. Employees who could, worked from home, holding meetings via Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms. 

And across the nation, hospitals and other health care facilities struggled to keep up as they ran low on ICU beds and personal protective equipment. Businesses closed and unemployment skyrocketed, forcing families to turn to food banks for daily meals. A stimulus package provided some relief, but not nearly enough for many people. 

Indeed, if Charles Dickens were alive, he may have used the phrase “It was the worst of times”—from his classic “A Tale of Two Cities”—to describe what was transpiring. It was a frightening chain of events that also saw a U.S. president impeached for only the third time in history and racial tensions erupt across the nation in the wake of the George Floyd killing. 

“As someone who has dedicated a life to public health, if you were to ask me if there would be a pandemic, I would have said yes,” said Erin Kobetz, vice provost for research and scholarship, who oversees the University of Miami’s COVID testing, tracking, and tracing program. “It was never a question of if, but when. What’s been surprising, though, is we could never fully predict the impact and, on some level, the failure of our public health system to respond efficiently and in a timely manner. And for those of us on the university level, that we’d have to fill in the gap by assuming that responsibility that traditionally would have been done by the state or federal government.” 

But there are silver linings in almost every crisis, and Kobetz, a public health scientist, sees one even in the challenging year. 

“One of them was a global recognition that we were all in this together,” she explained. “Solving a crisis of this scale required collective engagement in an unprecedent manner. What has been so rewarding is that people have been willing to share their respective expertise in a way that advances the common good. And our attention to achieving that common good has distracted us from a normal tendency to be competitive instead of collaborative.” 

Amid it all, the University community learned something about itself. “That we could do hard things, for one, and that there is power in partnership,” said Kobetz, referring to measures and protocols put in place to hold in-person instruction over the fall semester and design and implement an aggressive COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program. “In order for us to successfully pull off this semester, it required input and involvement from nearly every unit on campus. The way that people were able to come together, despite no history of collaboration, is remarkable. The hope is that those relationships and the trust that developed will persist.” 

Dealing with the pandemic, said President Julio Frenk, has required the University to apply the resilience with which it has been imbued since its founding. “We have stretched our capacity for remaining aware of the big picture while focusing on the immediate needs of the day, learning lessons and adapting to meet changing circumstances,” he said. “Doing so speaks not only to our resilience, but to the renewal that is possible when we work together for the greater good. Our experience thus far reassures me that as the world emerges from the triple crisis of a global pandemic, the economic recession it has caused, and a period of social unrest, the University of Miami will not merely adapt to a new normal, we will help build a better normal.” 

Jackie Travisano, executive vice president for business and finance and chief operating officer, echoed Frenk’s sentiments, saying that the University’s long and positive track record of dealing with various crises on campus, including hurricanes, will continue. “The level of personal and professional commitment that we saw from our senior leaders and through our entire organization was truly exceptional, from the beginning of the pandemic throughout the fall semester,” she said. 

Lessons Learned 

If anything, this past year and the fall semester, specifically, was confirmation that students value their experience on campus with faculty, staff, and each other, said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “That’s such a fundamental part of being a research-intensive residential university,” he said. “And this semester reaffirmed that will remain a very important part of our future because the students who were here and the faculty who were here were so dedicated to the University and the University experience.” 

With students and faculty members learning through three different modalities—in-person, completely remote, or via a hybrid model that combined the two—they learned to a great extent that they are more adaptable than they ever imagined, Duerk said. 

“And then there’s a billion things we learned just about pandemics and social distancing and how to be safe,” he said. “Fundamentally, we learned how to offer our faculty and students a safe University of Miami educational experience. Once you have safety, then you can learn, then you can teach.” 

Among the safety measures: classrooms with seats spaced six feet apart, protective plexiglass shields on desktops, and hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere. “Our classrooms and the planning that went into making them safe resulted in them probably being the safest places in the county. The things we conceptualized worked,” Duerk explained. 

In approximately 1 million student-faculty interactions during the fall semester, no cases of virus transmission occurred—success that was due in large part to an interdisciplinary approach in ensuring that “we could meet the threat of the pandemic with evidence-based information and a multifactorial strategy,” said Kobetz. 

“We built our test capacity throughout the semester, starting with testing individuals who were symptomatic and then doing random surveillance and then regular testing of our residential and non-residential students every 10 days and 12 days, respectively,” she said. 

Contact tracing was also critical, Kobetz pointed out, noting that the University conducted upward of 12,000 traces over the course of the fall semester. “And we’ve been fortunate and extraordinarily lucky, particularly at this moment in time, to have a University president who is a public health expert,” she stated. “How fortuitous it has been that his academic expertise mapped onto this emerging global need.” 

For University of Miami Athletics, 2020 presented unprecedented challenges. From March 12, when the department learned that spring sports were canceled, to June 15, when student-athletes returned to campus, to Sept. 10, when the Hurricanes football team became the first squad to return to competition, the department has navigated through competitive and operational situations for which there was no prior playbook, according to Blake James, director of Athletics. 

“The pandemic has forced us to be strategic and adaptive, all the while ensuring that each decision was made with the health and safety of our student-athletes as our top priority,” James said. “It has been inspiring to not only see them return to compete in the sports they love, but also to see them set the example for the rest of the student body by diligently following the protocols we have in place.” 

James also praised the department’s staff and coaches, noting that many of them have assumed duties they have never performed before in an effort to ensure that student-athletes have the best possible university experience. “The leadership and guidance we receive from our colleagues on campus and at UHealth is immeasurable,” he said. “We will all continue to work together to help pull off the incredible feat of safely conducting intercollegiate athletics during a pandemic.” 

Has the pandemic made University professors better researchers and instructors? Duerk certainly thinks so. 

“With this pandemic, we were forced to look at the way we teach and essentially remove some of the self-imposed constraints, to loosen the problem up a bit, and find some creative solutions,” he said. “In terms of research, scholarship, and artistic endeavors, the challenges of the pandemic forced us to look at how and why we do things. Faculty have had to adapt new ways to do their research, scholarship, and artistic endeavors. Any time you introduce newness, innovation, and new concepts into a situation, it just spurs new perspectives. And new perspectives are the heart of what a university does. We now see our research and teaching from different perspectives, and those perspectives can never be taken away from us again.” 

The provost doesn’t call it a redesign of higher education, but rather accelerated evolution. “And a part of that evolution is these new tools—online, but also the ability to asynchronously provide content—that open up tremendous flexibility in the future for when and how we teach our students,” Duerk said. A student studying abroad, for example, during the same semester that a course she needs to complete her degree is being offered might now be able to take that course by either sitting in class virtually with her peers or asynchronously when the time is convenient. 

“We’re neophytes, as is every other university, in this forced evolution in higher education,” Duerk said. “And universities that ultimately thrive after this will be the ones that assimilate those lessons learned and adapt to the new, better model of higher education. And that’s got to be us.” 

With vaccines now being administered—first to front-line health care workers and the vulnerable in long-term care facilities—the nation is getting a much-needed shot in the arm, and the beginning of the end to the coronavirus is finally within sight. 

And there are other reasons to be optimistic as well. “Growing awareness of the debilitating effects of systemic racism has led to new investments in Black communities and reforms in policing practices. The presidential election has been certified, and the new administration has committed to promoting unity and bipartisanship as goals for moving forward,” said Robin Bachin, the Charlton W. Tebeau Associate Professor of History and assistant provost for civic and community engagement.

“Yet we will still be feeling the effects of 2020 for years to come. Scientists still don’t understand the long-term health impacts of COVID-19; many of the jobs lost during the pandemic will not come back; and the repeated attacks on the electoral system are corrosive to the foundations of American democracy,” Bachin added. 

Looking Ahead 

The experience gleaned while dealing with the pandemic during all of 2020 should help the University get off to a smooth start for the new year.

“We have the benefit of the lessons learned from the fall semester, where we were building the plane as we were flying it,” said Kobetz. “There’s something good to be in that moment where you don’t really have the time to overthink. There’s also the benefit of having done something and having enough distance to realize you could have done it better.” 

The University will undertake protocols to improve its response, moving to at least weekly testing for all students across all three campuses and rolling out different strategies for testing as more technologies become available. “And we’re thinking about how we meet the demand or the continued interest in testing for faculty and staff beyond random surveillance,” Kobetz said. 

Students will continue to play a critical role in shepherding the University through the pandemic, said Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for student affairs. “I’m proud of them,” she added. “The majority followed our carefully outlined COVID-19 protocols and allowed us to remain open for the fall semester. We all learned together to exhibit creative flexibility and resilience while pivoting when required.”

Adeleke said the fall semester tested students like never before. 

“We had to factor in that COVID was a part of our lives. We knew we couldn’t change the fact that it was happening, but we knew we could control how we reacted to it,” said Adeleke, who worked with other student leaders to push out social media messages encouraging students to mask up. “For next semester, the message will stay the same: continue to wear a mask, continue to socially distance.” 

It’s that dedication that makes University of Miami students amazing, said Kobetz. “Their willingness to step into the role of university and global citizens was not only impressive but reassuring,” she said. “If that’s the next generation of thought-leaders, I feel pretty secure that we’re in good hands.”