My stomach dropped when President Kent Fuchs declared that spring semester of 2021 would be in-person, since “the full experience of a residential university includes in-person instruction...Our students deserve this opportunity.” As a UF graduate instructor, I disagreed with this policy for many reasons—primarily fear for student and staff safety as COVID-19 case numbers continued to (and still do) climb.
But what also alarmed me was the half-truth of ‘in-person classes’ as the rallying cry. As the vast majority of UF students have discovered during the first week of this semester, spring classes are a ‘worst of both worlds’ amalgam of digital and classroom learning when well-planned remote learning would be safer, cheaper, and more effective.
Our current system focuses on the ‘HyFlex’ class format, which offers two sections of the same class: one in-person and one online-only. One group of students registers as in-person learners and attends classes on campus. The other watches live video of the in-person class and completes assignments in an online setting.
As its name implies, HyFlex can offer some beneficial flexibility: HyFlex allows students to choose whether or not they want to go to class any given day. And in fully-online courses, many students with learning differences like ADHD struggle to keep up. In-person HyFlex learning could help.
However, HyFlex does not provide a ‘real college experience’ in pandemic times. For one thing, most students are not truly ‘in-person’ with HyFlex as currently implemented. Classrooms in some of the older buildings (like those I teach in) are too small to permit large classes as per 6-foot social distancing guidelines, meaning many students are in small classes or even alone in a room with their professors. For these in-person learners, this small group is not enough to spark meaningful engagement with the class. And for the students online, cut off from their professor and often barely able to hear what’s going on in the classroom, calling these class sessions ‘the full UF experience’ is a sick joke.
Last semester, I used online discussion to facilitate engagement and community. In a mostly-empty classroom, disconnected from the majority of my students, it is almost impossible.
But lackluster in-person experience isn’t the only drawback. From my perspective as both a student and instructor, the central problem is the hostility and sheer irresponsibility UF administration perpetuates through this system. Bowing to Governor Ron DeSantis’ mandate to reopen schools or face funding cuts is a shameful but perhaps an understandable necessity for a public school like UF. But the repeated threats, surprise coercive policies and callous disregard for human life UF administration has shown is inexcusable.
For instance, instructors only received ‘guidance’ on HyFlex teaching policies the Friday before classes began, telling them that “changing the scheduled modality of instruction in the plan of the syllabus, either temporarily or permanently, is a violation of UF policy”. Professors making such decisions could experience censure or termination even if they determine the classroom environment is unsafe, that the technology is unsuitable for discussion-based or experience-based classes, or if none of their in-person students attend. All of this is on top of the administration rejecting the majority of professor requests for health accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, bullying academic departments into raising classroom occupancy, and creating the now-infamous ‘snitch’ function on the GatorSafe app to report professors for not doing HyFlex the ‘right’ way.
All this doesn’t even take into account the financial and physical risks students are forced to bear. A student promised the in-person college experience has likely locked in their 12- or 18-month housing lease already, only to take all their classes online and pay distance learning fees despite living in Gainesville. Even if UF campus isn’t forced to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak (a real possibility, as we’ve seen at schools like the University of Michigan), students will be stuck in student housing, paying both rent and online learning fees rather than living the college life they were promised.
More to the point, gathering more students in Gainesville has exponentially increased COVID-19 risks in the dorms and the wider community, as we have seen at other universities which attempted reopening too soon.
So no, HyFlex is not the ‘real college experience,’ and it’s not ‘what our students deserve’. For now, we must commit to taking care of our own and rejecting the ‘us vs. them’ barriers the administration has tried to put between us. Students should speak to instructors about their needs and put in writing that they will not attend in-person; for most classes, you will be permitted to stay online in this case. We must also refuse UF’s callous attempt to use the reporting app to put vulnerable professors and students at risk. But most importantly, make noise and let others know about the disaster unfolding at this university.
We need help from financial stakeholders like parents and alumni, people with the money and influence to stand up to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the UF Board of Trustees until they finally take responsibility for their actions. If these outside stakeholders contacted President Fuchs or Gov. DeSantis, the state government and the UF Board of Trustees would at least consider changing policy. Calling UF’s bluff would likely put an end to the HyFlex half-truths and force UF to make the responsible choice.
Maxine Donnelly is a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Graduate Instructor.