UF leaders shared vision, answered questions during Tuesday’s town hall

Several UF leaders and some of UF Health’s foremost experts on epidemiology and infectious diseases came together to answer questions about the university’s plans for moving forward together this fall in a town hall held on Tuesday. Faculty and staff were provided the opportunity to ask questions prior to and during the event hosted by the Faculty Senate, and approximately 2,500 were in attendance.

In his opening remarks, President Fuchs reiterated the four priorities he shared with the university community last spring, namely that:

  • Everyone be safe and well
  • Students finish the spring semester successfully
  • The work of the university continue
  • We seek to minimize the financial impact on our students and employees

President Fuchs went on to express his gratitude to faculty and staff for how much our university community has accomplished, but acknowledged that as students come back, this will be even more challenging. However, he also provided reassurance that, thanks to the support of UF Health and the all the university has done in recent weeks to get ready for the fall semester, we are in a much better position to move forward than when the pandemic emerged last spring.

“We have learned a huge amount about this virus,” he said, “and we are as prepared as any university in the nation.”

President Fuchs also shared that he had one “ask” of faculty and staff as we enter the new fiscal and academic year.

“This coming year, in all that we do in our teaching and our scholarship, I ask that we be even more effective, and that for our students, in our research endeavors, the university excels and soars in all that it does,” he said. “That’s a huge ask in the midst of a virus that’s affecting us. But that is our commitment and our goal as a university.”

President Fuchs was joined by Senior Vice President and COO Charlie Lane; Provost Joe Glover; Vice Presidents Jodi Gentry and Amy Hass; UF Health Chief Epidemiologist Nicole Iovine; and UF Health Screen, Test & Protect Director Michael Lauzardo and epidemiologist Jerne Shapiro. Faculty Senate Chair Sylvain Doré hosted the event, posing questions that were submitted both prior to and during the event.

Below is a summary of some of the questions asked and answers provided during the event. For additional answers to frequently asked questions, please visit the Our Plan Forward website.

Will everyone be able to get tested for free, regardless of symptoms? Will more screenings be available?

In terms of testing, the answer is yes. Long-term, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect is more than simply a back-to-campus effort; it’s a comprehensive public health surveillance unit. We will continue to monitor campus with cluster sampling and other opportunities to test. Limitations will still be in place, but we will do as much as possible that makes sense epidemiologically.

Why aren’t students being required to complete testing?

We’re a public institution, so constitutional considerations come into play in terms of what we require—and how we will be able to enforce that requirement. On balance, considering the value of the test and our ability to enforce, we require all students to complete a screening and require testing for students who indicate COVID-19 symptoms in the screening questionnaire. We also require testing for students that are in clinical or research settings when working with vulnerable populations. All students are encouraged to take a test, and we expect many will do so voluntarily. The more tests that are done, the more significant data points we are able to gather.

What will be the nature of the extent of contact tracing? For example, will professors be notified? How does it align with HIPAA and FERPA? If a student comes to class coughing or sneezing, am I allowed to ask or insist they leave?

Contact tracing is new to many of us, but rest assured, it’s an age-old practice. The process UF Health Screen, Test & Protect is following in partnership with the Department of Health is:

  • Interviewing the person who tests positive to find out where they initially may have been exposed and infected (e.g., house parties, gyms, bars)
  • Conducting public health education with the individual on how to isolate or quarantine safely in the home and how to protect others so we don’t continue to spread.
  • Performing contact tracing by identifying who that person was around during the infection period and gathering contact information

Our team at UF Health Screen, Test & Protect, working with UF affiliates, has kept on top of contact tracing every day. In terms of notifying parents and families, students are treated like adults and their privacy is respected, so parents and families are only notified if needed to stop the spread of disease. Reports are pushed out to the Dean of Students Office and HR each day with status changes.

Considering new research suggesting that the disease is largely airborne, what are the university’s plans to preserve air quality in buildings on campus? What is being done in terms of physical distancing, especially in labs or in the College of the Arts, for example, to ensure safety?

In terms of air cleaning, the UF Facilities Services team has changed out filters where they can with higher efficiency filters. These filters tax the air system to some extent, so we have to be careful about that. Our guidance from UF Health suggests that because COVID is airborne, we need to pay attention to how many exchanges there are before people return to space if someone in the space has tested positive. We are paying attention to that and doing what we can.

In the research space, Dr. Norton has put together a comprehensive plan to address the cleaning of animal care facilities and other research spaces as well as physical distancing and the wearing of face masks.

The College of the Arts is unique in its diverse activities, and various scenarios have been reviewed with a group of physicians and epidemiologists. In some scenarios, activities can’t be done safely, so recommendations include holding class outdoors, keeping groups small, the use of masks, etc.

The greatest risk for anyone is being indoors with an infected person without a mask. As time goes on and we learn more and more about the virus nationally and internationally, our priorities with regard to mitigation of infection necessarily changes as well. The risk of transmission, for example, from contaminated surfaces is being deemphasized, but respiratory transmission is the major area where we need to focus our efforts.

How realistic is it that faculty, staff, students and others will comply with wearing masks or face coverings? And who will be responsible for enforcement?

The emphasis has always been to create a culture of caring and to inform people. We need to take care of our colleagues. By complying with masks, it makes a difference. But with public health, we’re talking about population health — meaning there’s a benefit, even if everyone doesn’t comply.

There are obviously a variety of venues and situations on campus. When students enter certain areas like the Reitz Union, for example, the supervisors in those areas will ask those not masked to mask-up. For faculty teaching classes, any student not wearing a mask should politely be asked to wear one. If the student does not, they should be asked to leave the room. If the student refuses, faculty should exercise good judgment, which could mean terminating class for the day, for example, and report the event to the Dean of Students Office to take disciplinary measures.

Similarly, we do have faculty and staff policies that follow the same steps. Supervisors or managers should remind anyone not wearing a mask to do so. Anyone who does not comply will be sent home, and a disciplinary process is in place that will be followed.

How will PPE and masks be made available and distributed? Should a teacher who is in front of a class remove his or her mask to talk?

It is university policy that everyone is to wear a face covering when they are in a building, including classrooms, unless in a private office or workstation. Our plan is to distribute appropriate masking materials through the departments. The finalization of class schedules will help determine what’s needed based on those who will be in front of a class. We want to make it as easy as possible to comply.

Campus was closed with relatively few cases. Now we are facing a major surge, and the university is going to open to a certain extent. What is the justification for this, and when will campus close again, if needed?

The campus did not truly close — that’s a misnomer. In the spring, thousands continued to work on campus. As we prepare for fall, we should follow the guidance of UF Health. We meet weekly with a medical guidance committee, following all of their recommendations for reopening. We have taken steps to reduce face-to-face, direct contact. Most of what we are doing is in online mode, along with research laboratories operating under medical guidance. Things change daily, and should UF Health recommend we change our plans, we’ll take it into account.

We know a lot more now about the virus, how it spreads and how to treat it than we did four months ago. The university is much better prepared with equipment, safety protocols and testing. Circumstances are dramatically different. If we get into the situation we did in the spring, the financial impact on students and employees will be dramatic. We won’t be able to absorb this impact well. That’s why we’re having this balance—to fulfill our mission, but doing it as safely as possible based on what we’ve learned.

There is a perception that we are being influenced by politics, but we, as a UF community, control what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Given all the uncertainties, both UF Health and the university are prepared. Even in the midst of an increase in cases, that is not a threat to our health system, which is a real trigger for our community.

Is UF going to be remote after Thanksgiving?

No, while some universities have adopted this plan nationwide, UF has not. But we are asking faculty to make it optional for students to return after Thanksgiving, so students do not have to return if they don’t want to.

Childcare has always been a challenge for working families, but particularly now. Faculty and staff are unable to work effectively with children at home. My worry is schools will reopen too soon, shut down again and parents will be left with inconsistent work schedules and the expense of backup care.

We are looking to see if we can forge some partnerships with community resources to offer some additional options. If a faculty or staff member is experiencing financial hardship, they are encouraged to seek financial assistance through Aid-a-Gator. Flexibility through UF’s Alternate Work Location policy and leave are also available. UFHR is a resource to help think things through for those who need assistance.

Can departments be given discretion to give employees the ability to work remotely? Does UF prefer individuals to return to work?

The Alternate Work Location policy has been around for a long time and continues to be available. The policy really centers on the job. UF doesn’t have a position on whether employees work off-campus or on-campus. The policy always has been and continues to be focused on the job and the outcomes expected as well as any institutional requirements that leader might want to address.

If a faculty member believes they may have been exposed, may they lecture remotely until they have been cleared?

After evaluation by UF Health, the faculty member should talk to his or her department chair. Teaching remotely may be the appropriate response and what is recommended, depending on if class can be held that way. If not, the faculty member may take paid leave.

Will the gym be open during fall semester? What about football and other athletics?

The Southwest Rec Center will be open, but this is always subject to the guidance of UF Health; if the spread of the virus worsens on campus, we may be advised to close the facility.

No decisions have been made yet about major sports, including football. We expect some soccer and volleyball competitions early on may get delayed. In terms of NCAA sports, no decision has been made yet.

How will concerns for public transportation be addressed?

We work closely with RTS and intend to ask some questions about additional steps we can take. We don’t know to what extent they will limit the use of buses, but UF’s transportation group is working closely with them.

How are we monitoring activities outside of campus?

UF leaders are conducting a series of discussions with the city and county to talk about how we can increase safety in the community. A conversation with bar and restaurant owners was held on Tuesday, so more information is to come on this.

UF Health Screen, Test & Protect also is working with the Department of Health, based on relationships with them over time. Contact tracing overlaps with the county, so the team meets with them regularly to share information and is integrated from a public health standpoint.