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Friday, January 15, 2021

What happens if my classmate has COVID-19?

Biweekly testing, contact tracing and HyFlex alternatives shake up in-person studies

Evan Smith is taking three in-person classes this semester. Although he’s been taking classes at UF since Summer 2020, this will be the 18-year-old UF political science freshman’s first time listening to his professors’ lecture from within the same rooms. 

“Seeing my teachers face-to-face, even if those faces have masks on, is just miles better than sitting in my room,” Smith said. “I really hope it lasts, and I really hope we don't have a spike in cases. I hope for it to last as long as it can.”

This Spring, 40% of undergraduate students are preparing for a return to in-person classes. With 350 available classrooms and 4,908 in-person undergraduate classes for Spring, UF students and faculty are relying on protocols like mandatory testing, masking and social distancing to stay safe from COVID-19.

But what happens if someone in an in-person class tests positive for COVID-19?

In-person classes won’t be moved online, but individuals who test positive will join an online or HyFlex alternative while they wait for an OK on their One.UF “return to campus” status, UF Student Affairs Director Sara Tanner wrote in an email. 

Individuals who test positive must self-isolate for 10 days from the onset of symptoms. Asymptomatic individuals self-isolate for 10 days after their lab collection, according to the Screen, Test & Protect hotline. They are also not required to be tested again for 90 days as any positive tests will come from the body shedding the virus.

Students in the class won’t be notified about someone in their class testing positive unless they have been in close contact with a COVID-19-positive student. Close contact is defined as a distance of 6 feet for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before the start of symptoms until the time the person is isolated, Tanner wrote. 

In this case, public health officials will reach out to suspected or confirmed infections to recall whomever they may have infected and alert those contacts, according to UF Health’s Screen, Test & Protect initiative. Close-contact people will need to self-isolate for 14 days.

Faculty members will be able to access who has been cleared to attend classes, but enforcement for staying out of class will come down to personal responsibility or school sanctions like suspension and expulsion, Tanner wrote.

“Helping keep our community healthy is a shared responsibility,” she wrote. “It is the individual’s responsibility to follow policies and quarantine/isolate as appropriate.”

In the Fall, there were no instances of classroom-based community spread, Tanner wrote. The Fall saw 35% in-person or hybrid classes across undergrad, graduate and professional course sections.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Jan. 8 stating that counties with universities that had in-person classes had a larger spread of COVID-19 than universities with online classes. 

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UF is also implementing biweekly screening and testing through the One.UF portal. Any student who is residing or dining in a Greek community, living in an undergrad residence hall or attending in-person classes will need to be tested to attend in-person classes.

Students do not need to test negative to be cleared for campus. As long as they have been tested, students can show instructors clearance on their One.UF that they can attend classes.

If a student feels they have symptoms or may have been in contact with someone who did, they can schedule a test before the two-week mandate, Tanner wrote. 

A student is not cleared to return to class if they have tested positive or been in close contact with an infected person. Some students and faculty are worried these protocols may not be enough.

UF English professor Malini Johar Schueller asked what her chances of being infected were if a student came to class with COVID-19 at a faculty town hall Jan. 9. She was told it was low but she wasn’t given a specific number, something she said she found unacceptable.

“I have to go to work and increase my chances of getting a deadly illness for no reason whatsoever,” she said. “I do not see any reason to increase people’s chances of getting ill.”

Schueller, who is teaching in person this semester, said she was concerned with the policies. 

“The classes went absolutely fine last semester on Zoom,” she said. “ It’s not as if we are abandoning students or abandoning face-to-face instruction, which all of us absolutely love. It is just not the wisest thing to do right now.”

Sarisha Boodoo, a 20-year-old UF political science and sustainability studies junior, said UF is being completely irresponsible. She opted out of taking in-person classes because of UF’s lack of accommodations and because vaccinations haven't been administered to most faculty or students. 

“This pandemic has really brought out that the university is incapable of handling these kinds of situations,” Boodoo said. “We’re not close to being over and right now I feel like the university is not at all doing it very thoughtfully.”

She mentioned many faculty members also have an issue with the return to in-person classes. UF professor of Latin American studies Emilio Bruna agrees. 

“Even though we’ve learned a lot about COVID and how to reduce the risk of transmission, it doesn’t make sense to me why we’re going back into this situation when things are far worse now than they were before,” Bruna said. 

UF’s rejection of 144 requests for accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act as of Nov. 19 has made many professors even more wary of returning to in-person teaching. 

Bruna said he was fortunate enough to teach a small class that only meets once a week but spoke up for his colleagues who are at a higher risk. 

“You’ve got to understand, I have it easy. I think I can teach my class reasonably safely,” he said. “My concern is not for me. It’s for my colleagues that are teaching much larger classes but feel like they're in a position where they can’t speak up and say these kinds of things.” 

Although the changes professors are being asked to implement to adapt to online and hybrid classes could be taken in stride under the best of circumstances, Bruna said, it’s been difficult with little time to prepare and stress from the pandemic. 

“We’re all just exhausted,” he said. “Everybody’s exhausted.”

Contact Manny Rea and Sofia Echeverry at mrea@alligator.org and secheverry@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @ReaManny and @sofecheverry.

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