GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When the University of Florida shifted online almost overnight in March because of COVID-19, biology major Aneesah Melaram knew her lab and campus experience would be much different.
“It was awful... . I do way better with in-person lectures,” said the 19-year-old rising sophomore from Port St. Lucie about online classes.
But while she said she’s excited to possibly return to Gainesville and a sense of normalcy in the classroom next month, she can’t shake the feeling that not all 50,000 students will follow social-distancing rules or even wear masks.
“I don’t trust everybody to follow all the social-distancing rules and wear their mask everywhere,” she said. “Under the posts UF makes on Instagram, people are saying Gators don’t wear masks ... and I’m like, ‘This is for everybody’s own good.’”
COVID cases are spiking statewide, causing officials from the governor’s office to roll back reopening plans in Florida.
And it’s thrown into disarray the things often associated with UF’s fall semester: football Saturdays, homecoming weekend and parties.
Alachua County hasn’t been immune from the skyrocketing positive test results, and local health officials have reported some of the highest numbers of new virus cases in the past week, attributing the increase to 15- to 25-year-olds.
Due to the quick rise, UF announced Wednesday that administrators have postponed releasing the school’s reopening plan from July 2 to July 10. The plan, approved by the Florida Board of Governors last week, would finalize remaining questions about online versus in-person classes, and how fall semester will look.
Seven UF students told The Sun they either haven’t made up their mind about returning to campus or they’re yearning to come back. The number of apartments already being snatched up in the city appear to show many share that yearning, even if student life likely won’t look the same.
“I’m a little sad I won’t be able to get the traditional experience of being a freshman in college,” said 18-year-old Manoj Kambara, of Land O’Lakes. Kambara said, however, he still plans to come to Gainesville.
“I was hoping to go to football games, traditional lecture classes and to participate in clubs. Although, I understand that, above all, we should be looking out for the safety of others,” he said.
But there’s uneasiness about whether students can truly, and collectively, abide by the required gathering sizes, social distancing and perhaps the most contentious: wearing a mask.
“I think it’s really split,” said 21-year-old rising UF junior Megan McGourley. “Either you’re the type of person who will stay in and not go out, or maybe it’s your first time away from home and you might use that to your advantage, and go to house parties.”
Regardless if bars remain closed through the start of the school year, McGourley said, students probably won’t stop congregating for house parties.
Wednesday, Alachua County community leaders pleaded with young people to call off any block and house parties in the near future, which they blame for many of the recent positive cases. The same day, UF co-signed a letter with local government officials with a similar urgent message about gatherings.
“Please understand the far-reaching health care risks associated with contracting the virus,” the letter read. “While you may feel fine, attending social functions may contribute to you or someone else getting sick and could alter plans for the fall semester.”
Failure to avoid gatherings of 50 or more people or not wearing a mask, according to the letter, will result in student conduct violations.
Students also say they’re pining for in-person classes, but they are skeptical about about how it can be done safely.
McGourley estimates that, generally, she and about 22 fellow architecture students make up her studio classes.
“I’m a little nervous because of the amount of time we spend in there, and during a pandemic that’s pretty scary,” she said. “I’m not sure how we’re going to do it.”
Jasmine Encarnacion, 18, said she enjoyed her online classes, though she misses the face-to-face interaction with professors and peers.
“It’s also caused somewhat of a decline in my mental health because of the lack of social interaction, but I think that goes for everyone in quarantine,” the microbiology and cell science major said.
One thing all students seem to agree upon is the uncertainty and confusion they feel.
“I think most students feel like UF is being quite vague,” Encarnacion said. “People can’t wait until the last minute to sort out housing and figure out their schedules.”
McGourley agreed, saying, “seems every other email we get is saying ‘we’re not sure in this moment’ or ‘we’re in unprecedented times,’” she said.
UF spokesman Steve Orlando said administration “absolutely” understands that students feel uncertain about the semester.
“We are all facing confusion,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we’re trying to make sure we’re taking the time to do this correctly, and don’t rush into anything. And that can be frustrating at times.”