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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

UF departments make plans for faculty sickness, social distancing in Fall

COVID dept chairs
COVID dept chairs

University faculty and staff across the nation have died as a result of COVID-19: a law professor from Howard university, a custodian from the University of Texas at Austin and others. While no employees from UF have died, Alachua County’s COVID-19 death rate continues to grow.

The Alligator reached out to 97 UF departments and 16 colleges to find out their plans should a university employee die of COVID-19 and how they will adapt if staff gets sick. Five department chairs and two deans responded. Here’s what we learned:

What is UF’s plan for faculty testing positive with COVID-19?

UF will not change its operations or course of action if a student or member of faculty dies of COVID-19, according to UF Spokesperson Steve Orlando.

John Arthington, the chair of the animal sciences department, said if a professor in the department gets sick, another professor will take over their course. They will use a buddy system to pair with each other based on how well they can cover each other’s class material.

“The off chance that something happens to me and I'm teaching nutrition, then my colleague that's teaching physiology could do a very good job in nutrition,” Arthington said. “There's some redundancy there that we can prepare for.”

Chairs of the entomology and nematology department, astronomy department, Spanish and Portuguese department and industrial and systems engineering department also said they would use this system. Deans of the College of Journalism and Communications and the College of Health and Human Performance said the same.

If multiple faculty members get sick, fewer and fewer professors will be responsible for more and more work. The department chairs said they plan to dip into their pools of adjunct faculty or doctoral students if faculty get overwhelmed.

COVID-19 infections can be mild, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If faculty test positive but still want to work from home, they would be allowed to, the entomology and nematology and Spanish and Portuguse department chairs said.

Extreme cases can take people out of work for weeks or even a month though, according to a World Health Organization report from February.

“It wouldn’t be uncommon for your professor to become normally ill and miss Monday and Wednesday lectures,” Arthington said. “What would be uncommon is for them to miss three or four weeks. Now we're in a situation where that could happen.”

Not all departments have a plan. The College of Dentistry has already begun hosting in-person classes with social distancing and sanitary measures to allow students to return to campus. It isn’t currently making a plan for if those measures fail though, according to the college’s spokesperson, Karen Rhodenizer.

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“I can’t speculate as to what our response will be if the situation and expectations change,” she wrote in an email to The Alligator.

How will departments keep employees safe?

The university reopening plan aims to keep most students out of the classroom. Sixty-five percent of classes will be held online. The rest will be in-person or hybrid classes, where a portion of the instruction is done in person.

The animal sciences and entomology and nematology departments have classes where students get up close with the organisms they study, the chairs said.

“Our department would probably be one of the leading departments that’s trying to figure out ways to work through our laboratory education needs,” Arthington said. “Social distancing at the farms is not really going to be a problem because we’re outside, we’re not in a classroom and we can maintain a lot of safety procedures in that respect.”

Outdoor entomology and nematology and animal science labs will remain in person or hybrid, according to the chairs.

Many indoor labs transitioned online for Fall. Faculty within the astronomy department will teach their observatory classes virtually, said department chair Elizabeth Lada.

“We’re working really hard this Summer to get ready to offer some of these classes remotely,” Lada said. “We’re working on getting many of our telescopes ready for remote observation, so our students can actually operate them remotely.”

Even with classes online, faculty, staff and some students will still be in UF buildings. Professors use their offices. Faculty and graduate students use the UF labs for research projects. About 23,378 employees were allowed to return to work, according to UF spokesperson Steve Orlando. According to Orlando, 3,071 employees are still to be cleared to return.

To keep these people safe, departments said they encouraged faculty to take office hours at home. Colleges added social distancing and sanitary measures in their buildings when employees began returning to campus, according to the department chairs.

“For the most part, faculty are working from home and allowing their students and postdocs to be in the building, in an effort to keep occupancy lower,” said entomology and nematology department chair Blair Siegfried. “We limit the number of people in any one room to no more than two people at a time. If there’s more than one person in a room, then they must have face masks on.”

The systems and engineering department is implementing similar socially-distanced buildings. They installed plexiglass on desks, stockpiled masks and set up sanitizing stations around the building, according to the department chair.

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Lianna Hubbard

Lianna Hubbard is a reporter for The Alligator’s Investigative Team. The UF women’s study major began as a freelance reporter three years ago. She founded her community college’s award-winning newspaper before beginning at The Independent Florida Alligator. See an issue in your community or a story at UF? Send tips to her Twitter.

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