Many University of Florida professors are walking into work each morning in fear of being exposed to COVID-19, their union says.
Across the street at Midtown, music booms as unmasked students are lined up eager to party.
The stark juxtaposition is likely to continue.
“I feel like the pandemic shouldn’t be a reason for me to like miss out my college years,” said Olivia Tolerico, a 19-year-old business management major at UF.
Tolerico, who said she previously had COVID-19, goes out to local bars three or four times a week. She said as long as her roommates are comfortable with her partying and she is not in contact with any family members, it is OK to hit the town.
“It’s a risk going to a bar because there’s a lot of people there—you never know—if they have it or not.” she said. “People are taking their masks off to drink, so, and like people are in a crowded area.”
That partying atmosphere is exactly what is causing UF professors teaching in-person classes to walk into work every day fearful of coming into contact with students who are not socially distancing and exposing themselves to the virus.
“Midtown bars packed with unmasked students certainly contributes to my desire for classes to be moved online,” said Ph.D. student Cara Wieland. “It’s also honestly unsurprising.”
Wieland, who teaches in the English department is strongly opposed to in-person learning while the pandemic continues. She recently signed an open letter on The Alligator urging for classes to be moved back online because she believes UF’s choice to reopen affects those beyond campus grounds.
“Everyone in Alachua County is impacted by an influx of tens of thousands of people into a small college town,” she said. “I worry for what seems like a very plausible scenario, where someone unknowingly spreads the virus at the grocery store and it eventually reaches the chemo ward, an enclosed room of immunocompromised folks who have to sit together for hours.”
Just a couple of buildings away from the English department is Meredith Miska, a graduate student majoring in geology and co-President of UF’s Graduate Assistants United chapter, who shares the same concerns as Wieland.
“There’s a lot of mixed feelings, because you love to teach, but you don’t want to get sick and die,” she said.
The Graduate Assistants United chapter at UF is a union which represents all teaching, graduate and research assistants at UF. Miska said many members of the union feel they were forced by the university to teach in-person classes and were not allowed accommodations upon request.
“The administration is still insisting that we do these things and put ourselves in these dangerous situations, and so there are a lot of graduate assistants who are frightened and worried for their safety,” Miska said.
According to UF’s Screen, Test & Protect initiative, routine testing is required every two weeks for undergraduate students living in residence halls, UF’s Greek community and students with in-person classes.
In an email sent to all faculty and staff on Feb. 3, 2021, Dr. Michael Lauzardo, the director of Screen, Test & Protect, states that UF had a 50% drop in COVID-19 cases during the holidays, but there was an increase in cases among students over the last week. He wrote the increase was caused by unmasked social gatherings centered around eating and drinking.
Lauzardo also wrote that UF has tested a total of 50,000 people on campus in January, surpassing number of tests across the entire fall semester.
Although the number of people on campus getting tested has increased, the concern lies in the fact that students are cleared for campus after getting tested, not after receiving their results.
Even though Wieland is concerned about partygoers attending class on campus, she does not think students are the main cause of COVID-19 spread in Alachua County.
“Many students are incentivized to party unsafely because they are feeling the mental health impacts of long-term uncertainty and social isolation, and businesses, UF included, encourage students to buy drinks, go to football games, sign housing contracts at crowded dorms, and so on, under a false pretense of normalcy because doing so is profitable,” she said.
Wieland has one message for students who are practicing social distancing.
“There are so many students that have chosen to remain online, or if they need to attend in-person for labs or visa status, they practice social distancing inside and outside of the classroom out of a sense of community solidarity,” she said. “To them I say thank you.”