Joining an increasing number of schools nationwide reacting to the coronavirus outbreak, the University of Florida on Wednesday urged its student body to return home to their families for two weeks, and said all of its classes would remain online until at least March 30.
As more coronavirus cases were confirmed across the state this week, the State University System of Florida earlier in the day directed all Florida universities to take the same steps to minimize health and safety risks to students, faculty, staff and their surrounding communities.
A 68-year-old Georgia woman tested positive for the virus on Tuesday after spending the week in Alachua County, said Paul Myers, the county’s health department director.
The state system told UF and three other schools already back from spring break – Florida Gulf Coast, Florida International and Florida Polytechnic – to send their students home.
Eight other universities still on break or about to go on one – including Florida State, Florida A&M, Central Florida and South Florida – were ordered to have them stay away for at least two weeks after their respective breaks end.
In an email shared across his campus, UF President Kent Fuchs asked organizers of large meetings or events to consider holding them online, postpone or cancel. The University Athletic Association and UF Performing Arts would soon reveal the status of their events, Fuchs said.
Fuchs said the campus would remain open and fully operational while students are away, and that employees were expected to maintain a normal work schedule.
Dining halls and other campus resources would remain open for those students unable to return home because of distance and short notice, the president said.
“These are extraordinary and uncertain times,” Fuchs said. “I share everyone’s concerns and understand how unsettling and disruptive these measures are.”
He added: “I encourage all of us to look out for each other as we take care of ourselves. I am confident that our university community will meet this challenge.”
At least 135 universities have suspended in-person classes including Harvard University, Stanford University, Washington University, Vanderbilt University, University of California Berkeley and Michigan State University. Riot police were called to University of Dayton’s campus after administration announced housing there would be closed starting the following day.
At UF, the College of Journalism and Communications sent an email stating that two professors and 10 students were in self-quarantine after attending the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in New Orleans between March 5-8. At least one person not affiliated with UF had been confirmed as having contracted the virus while at the conference.
Taylor Johnson, 21, a senior journalism major from Atlanta and former reporter for WUFT News, said she had took precautions such as washing her hands repeatedly while at the conference. Still, she said, she decided on her own to self-quarantine earlier this week to minimize any potential harm to anyone on campus.
“I don’t want to further spread anything because then everybody is going to be vulnerable,” Johnson said.
At least 40 UF students attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, according to Ava Loomar, 21, a junior journalism major. Three days after the conference, two attendees from New York tested positive for the virus, according to a tweet by AIPAC.
“With so many students coming back from break from places that have positive cases, a campus outbreak is bound to happen sooner or later,” Loomar said of the steps mandated by UF. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re leaving campus because of this.”
The on-campus infirmary at UF on Wednesday were advising students who do not need immediate care to avoid entering the building.
Nurses at the entrance were pre-screening patients who need care. Those students who had traveled outside the country or were showing symptoms of a respiratory disease were asked to put on a mask, fill out a questionnaire and were taken to the back of the building for assistance.
Infirmary officials could not give details about potential testing and refused to let WUFT reporters talk to patients entering the building.
Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination, is scheduled to speak on campus on Monday as part of Accent Speakers Bureau’s speaker series. Dance Marathon, a major annual student-run event which benefits children at UF Health Shands, was still scheduled to take place March 28-29, according to a statement released on Facebook.
April Rubin contributed reporting to this story.