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THE WEEKLY: UCF president talks reopening plans amid coronavirus pandemic

Colleges and universities will look much different when students return to campuses in the fall because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

UCF president Dr. Alexander Cartwright was hired by the university shortly after the virus began spreading in Florida. Cartwright discussed the changes students and faculty will experience on “The Weekly on ClickOrlando.com with Justin Warmoth.”

Below is an edited transcript of their interview:

WARMOTH: What will UCF look like here in the next few weeks?

CARTWRIGHT: We're bringing back students. We'll have a number of students in our dorms -- we've gone to single rooms. We're making sure we're following as many safety guidelines as we can. Everybody's going to be wearing masks. Everybody's going to be physically distancing. And we're going to be making sure that people are following all of the cleanliness guidelines we have -- washing hands and keeping everything as clean as possible. We're going to have a mixture. It's not all going to be face-to-face. It'll be a mixture of remote classes, some digital learning, some hybrid courses -- where it's in-person and a mixture of online -- and then some face-to-face for those courses that we thought were most important to be able to provide in-person.

WARMOTH: Has the surge in cases changed anything for you and the university as you make plans?

CARTWRIGHT: We have to be good partners to the community. We need to be thinking about what's happening here within Central Florida and the Orlando region, and we monitor it daily. We have good relationships with the county and city, and we continue to understand what's happening here and what would be the best steps to be taking. Our plan was built to be as flexible as possible. We never said, "Here's exactly what's going to happen and when." We have a road map of the steps we'd take, but all along we knew that there were things that could occur that might change our next steps. A simple one is that we had scheduled that we were going to 50 percent occupancy in our buildings awhile back now, towards the beginning of July. We delayed that, we have not. We've stayed at 30 percent because we started to see a surge, and we'll stay there for now until we understand more about what's going on. So, even the fall will be different depending on where we are in the next few weeks and we'll adjust appropriately to do our part to help the entire community.

WARMOTH: We've heard from some kids out there that they're going to take a gap year. Have you seen that or has enrollment stayed steady?

CARTWRIGHT: Our enrollment right now has stayed pretty steady. In fact, we're up a little bit for the fall and we hit record numbers for the summer. We had the best summer we've ever had in terms of credit hours and in terms of students. We do anticipate that we'll probably see some sort of drop off in the number -- potentially some drop off -- but we don't know that for sure. If you're looking at a lot of other institutions, they've seen that drop off. The advantage we have, and I really do see this as a distinct advantage, is that we're known for providing remarkable education online. Our remote learning, our digital learning has been around for 20 plus years, and we're ranked in the top 20 in the country in providing digital learning experiences for our students. Over 80 percent of our students have already taken online classes. We know that in those courses we have followed our methodology and we really think about it as a digital learning experience. It's not as simple as going on Zoom. So many of our professors have been educated in the right pedagogy to be using online to get the best experience for our students. I think that has helped us. I think that experience by our students, their ability to still know that they can reach out to the faculty members and connect with the instructors, those are things that have helped strengthen it. I think that has put us in a place where people recognize -- regardless of what's happening -- you can get an exceptional education at UCF and we're here to provide that.

WARMOTH: I'm sure you have some parents who are a little hesitant and the kids are so ready. They probably want to hear that their child can go have that college experience while also feeling safe. It's a tough juggle I'd imagine.

CARTWRIGHT: It's an extremely difficult juggle. And Justin, I appreciate you recognizing that. When we think about reopening for the fall, a significant number of our students want to come back to school. They want to be part of our campus. We recognize, though, that there are number of others who don't want to be coming back, and we've provided options to them to be able to take classes and be able to be remote if they choose to do so. But you're right. There's a lot of students that have expressed to me they want to come back. How do we go through making sure that those students have the experience that is best for them? And that's why we're so adamant about ground rules, like wearing amask, physical distancing, we want to make sure their following good hygiene like washing hands, do all the things that we know limit the spread. We also embrace technology. We have an app that we're asking everybody to participate in at the beginning of the day that you go through and do a check list. At the end of answering all of those questions, it'll say whether you are cleared or not. If you're not cleared, it doesn't mean that it's saying you have COVID, what it's saying is that we refer you to UCF Health to have further follow up. It's questions that you would expect, but it puts it all in one place. It's things like: Have you been in contact with anyone who's been positive? Do you have any of the symptoms? We just need people to take that personal responsibility and do as much as they can. We're going to follow those rules. If I wake up in the morning and I feel like something's not right and I know that I might be putting others at risk, I'm going to stay at home. I'm going to stay at home and call my doctor. And if the doctor says I need to be tested, I'll be tested and I'll wait until I get the results of the test before I interact with any others again.

WARMOTH: Has there been any talk about widespread testing?

CARTWRIGHT: We are looking at how we can expand our ability to test. When we brought back student-athletes this summer, we tested them. As people come back to our dorms, they'll be tested. As they come back to our Greek life housing, they'll actually also be tested. So, there's a number of groups who are going to be testing. The question you have is really a good one: How much more testing do we do on a daily basis? We're looking at how we can increase the number of tests we can do per day. We don't know if we'll be able to do it, but we're seeing if we can do batch testing so that you can bump the number of tests per day. We need to be able to test at high enough rates and that's actually a part of the entire plan.

WARMOTH: I know a big challenge will be stopping college kids from being college kids. Is that something you can police?

CARTWRIGHT: It's difficult to police every individual in what they should be doing. I think what we need to focus on is what it means to be a Knight. Our campaign is armor up and never let your guard down. In certain situations you end up letting your guard down. We want to encourage all of our students and faculty and staff that we avoid those situations where we might put ourselves at risk, and therefore put the entire community at risk -- not just UCF, all of Orlando. This is something we all need to take on as personal responsibility and a commitment to each other. When we started this, we started with the idea that it had to be built around compassion. It had to be built around caring. Caring for the community and caring for each other. We need to continue that moving into the future. I think that's what we're going to have to rely on, that everybody understands that there's certain behavior, there's certain things we're looking for, and that does mean that we want you to extend that beyond just being on campus at UCF. We would like you to follow that as much as possible and really be the great Knights that we know people can be.

WARMOTH: Let's hope this doesn't happen, but say there was an outbreak on campus. Is there a fail-safe here, a trigger maybe, that you'll flip?

CARTWRIGHT: One of the things that we did was that we intentionally made our plan as flexible as possible. How you make those decisions is really complicated because it isn't just one thing. Our decision will be influenced by what's happening in the community. What's happening in Orlando. What's happening in Orange County. It's our ability to see if it's isolated to just a particular location. If it's isolated to floors. If it's isolated to a particular group. There's a lot of things that we'd need to be looking at, but what I'll say is that we have built our plan as intentional as possible so that if we had to very rapidly switch a number of classes to virtual, we can do that. We have that ability. We did it before. We did it in the spring. We're going to continue to be able to provide that education in every way possible. For us, it's so much of the experience for our students is about being with each other, being in that community, having the opportunity to learn from each other, having the opportunity to experience what it means to be on a college campus, and we want to provide that experience. Ultimately, I can't say right now that there's a magic number, a magic situation that's going to trigger it, but I will say that every day that I wake up, every day that we're together, we think about what's happening currently, we think about where this is headed and we think about what we could do to try and make the situation better.

WARMOTH: I do want to ask you about sports. How involved are you with the decision-making regarding athletics at UCF?

CARTWRIGHT: We are constantly in contact with our conference. We're looking at what could be best for UCF, but also how do we work with the other universities that are in the conference. It's really a conversation that has to take place and learning from all that's going on. We've been in fairly regular conversation with all of the other athletic directors, all of the other presidents in the conference and working with our conference commissioner. But it isn't just that. It's also what the conferences are doing, and we continue to monitor what's happening there. Some conferences have said they aren't going to play, others have said they're delaying their decision. We have not made a final decision yet as a conference. I know we're trying to make that as soon as possible. We have some meetings upcoming in the next week to two weeks, and we're hoping we can come to a decision within that time about what would be best for the conference.

WARMOTH: Are you optimistic the Bounce House will bounce?

CARTWRIGHT: I’d love to see the Bounce House bouncing. Right now, our current protocol is that we’d have to be looking at physical distancing, so we probably wouldn’t able to be bounce as much, but I think right now that’s where we are. I have to tell you, our student-athletes and our coaches have just been tremendous throughout all of this. They have really stepped up. They’ve been following the rules and they’re really trying to do everything they can to try and prepare for the season. But that decision is solely based on us, we can’t just play ourselves. That’s going to be the challenge is what’s happening at the other institutions and all you have to do is look through some of the other teams to see that some have gone into isolation because of what’s happened to their teams. We’re hoping we can play. We just have to continue to monitor what’s happening at all of the other schools in our conference.


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