Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday that four University of Florida students had tested positive for the coronavirus, increasing the number of confirmed cases to six in Alachua County.
Hours later, another UF student, from Jacksonville, said she and her family were in self-quarantine after she came down with a fever, shortness of breath, coughing and headaches on Sunday. Christine DiPaolo, 22, a law school student, said she feared she had contracted the virus, but had not yet been tested because she did not meet criteria set by federal health officials.
More than 13,000 UF students had signed a petition urging UF to temporarily transition from the standard A-E letter grading system to a pass-fail option for students in the wake of the virus.
DeSantis also said faculty at all universities in the state system would conduct their classes online for the rest of the spring semester. The prior mandate had been until March 30.
Students at all of the universities were ordered to return home unless it was absolutely impossible, and employees who can were work remotely were strongly encouraged to do so. Last week, UF had encouraged students to leave campus, but many have remained in Gainesville.
The university was also expected to prolong its suspension of in-person classes until the fall, leaving students with unanswered questions about their academic futures. Students were still expected to be able to enroll in online summer school classes, university officials said.
The state university system’s board of governors also mandated the cancelation of graduation ceremonies in May. Each school was to develop an alternative means to recognize graduates.
“These are indeed unprecedented times, and I want to thank you for all of your resilience, patience and determination,” UF President Kent Fuchs wrote in an email to all students, faculty and staff at his university soon after DeSantis made his announcement.
Santa Fe College President Paul Broadie said its operations would also move online in “an abundance of caution” and until further notice.
Two of the UF students were infected during domestic travel, one was infected during international travel, and one came in contact with an infected student, according to the university.
One of the students is enrolled in the College of Dentistry and traveled to Portugal during spring break, according to published reports. He treated a patient at the college on March 9, the day he was tested for the virus, according to the Gainesville Sun.
Many patients who get dental services done by students are elderly, a segment of the population particularly susceptible to contracting COVID-19, the disease spawned by the coronavirus.
The petition seeking pass-fail grading at UF had just 300 signatures before DeSantis’ announcement.
“Due to the uncertainty of this situation and the possible, unsafe environments of some students’ homes, it is likely that their academic performance will be deeply affected,” the petition states.
“UF’s students understand and thank the university for taking our health into consideration and providing online instruction,” it added. “However, we believe that the next step is to allow class the option for pass/fail or a generous curve.”
Sol Pickman, 22, a senior finance major, said she began the petition after hearing about other universities across the country moving to pass-fail grading in the wake of the global outbreak. They include Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Smith College.
Similar petitions urging universities to consider students’ lack of access to academic resources or anxiety because of the pandemic have gone viral at Columbia University and Barnard College in New York, Indiana University and Florida International University.
Pickman, who studied abroad at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology during spring 2018, said having a pass-fail option would reduce her stress during such an unprecedented time.
A pass-fail grade would not affect a student’s GPA, and therefore not impact merit-based scholarships such as Florida Bright Futures that thousands of students rely on.
“I think our priorities should be our health and our family’s health and everyone around us,” Pickman said. “Right now, academics, for most of us, aren’t up there.”
Amy Abuqawod, 21, a senior criminology major hoping to attend law school after graduation, said the petition’s primary demands could do more harm than good. In her case, Abuqawod said, pass-fail grades could hurt her chance to meet the strict requirements of competitive programs.
“It’s a really bad idea, frankly,” she said.
Abuqawod said UF should instead provide academic relief such as bumping all students up a letter grade or having generous school-wide mandated curves.
“With this pandemic, I mean, how exactly are you supposed to be focused on your online class, if you’re worried about a family member who’s immunocompromised or something like that,” she said.
Sasha Stein, a senior sports journalism major, packed clothes for only two weeks when going back home to Boca Raton, expecting to return to Gainesville for the resumption of in-building classes March 30. All of the disruption is not only unsettling, but disappointing, Stein said.
“It really does suck, because when you go into college, you look forward to senior year, you look forward to graduation, taking your grad pictures and just finishing out,” she said. “And I feel like I didn’t get a chance to do any of that.”
At Santa Fe, the transition to online classes has been a “chaotic process,” said David Price, the college senate president. That’s particularly true for some students more so than others.
“If they can’t come to class for class, they can’t come to campus for internet access, that’s really going to put some students in a bind,” Price said.
Despite the rough start, however, Price said he hopes that Santa Fe and other colleges and universities would find ways to serve students who do not perform as well in online settings.
“I hope I’m not disappointed,” he said.
UF also announced that it was restricting library hours to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., effective Wednesday.
Madison Bushloper, 19, a sophomore nuclear engineering major, pays for her apartment and daily necessities by working at the front desk of the Fine Arts and Architecture library through her work-study program. That may not be an option anymore.
“I have a compromised kidney, but I am working the maximum hours at the library right now because it is my rent and a half,” Bushloper said. “If I had financial security, I wouldn’t keep putting myself at risk.”