UM Reopens… Cautiously

Students Return to the University of Miami, But with an Abundance of Safety Measures

While some American universities chose to close their doors to students this fall semester, the University of Miami decided to allow students to return to its Coral Gables campus for in-person instruction. The controversial decision was made by UM President Dr. Julio Frenk, who imposed a strict set of rules for returning students.

“Based on my 36 years of experience as a public health professional, the situation we face with respect to COVID-19 is serious,” Frenk told students in a video message. He went on to explain how the UHealth system was in excellent shape to handle the pandemic. “On the academic side of our mission, providing an exceptional educational experience is the ‘why’ of our decision,” he said.

A physician who served as Mexico’s Minster of Health and later as dean of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Frenk said he thought UM could offer “an adaptive and responsive strategy” to keeping students safe, while allowing those who felt unsafe to continue studying remotely. Approximately one third of the undergraduate student body took the option to remain home and study online. For the majority of those who returned, just how safe they will be depends on how well campus precautions work.

For starters, all returning students had to report negative for COVID-19 before they were allowed to attend classes. A curfew has also been put in place, as well as strict restrictions on overnight guests. Returning students had to complete a We Are One U: COVID-19 Safety Principles online training module before their return. The campus itself was enhanced for the virus, from hundreds of hand-sanitizing stations to plexiglass shields in front of cashiers and faculty. Classrooms have been rearranged to allow for social distancing, and some classes will be held in large outdoor tents.

All returning students, regardless of living arrangements, were presented with a COVID-19 wellness kit full of sanitary equipment, and all faculty, staff and students are required to use masks and an online symptom checker daily. Testing will be available and random students will be picked for testing throughout the semester. Flu vaccines are free and mandatory for all students, so that no resources will be squandered treating and tracking the influenza instead of coronavirus.

Some students feel encouraged by these measures. Senior Dave Downey, a meteorology major, says he thinks UM is “in a better spot than most other [schools].” He referenced the presence of the UHealth system, among the best in the country, and President Frenk’s previous experience dealing with widespread infectious diseases as a physician and health minister in Mexico.

Other students think UM should have followed the lead of some other universities and only offered online courses, at least for now. “It looks to me like the school just made sure they put out enough statements,” junior Kate Styles says. “And when the cases go up, they’ll blame everything on us students, even though they’re the ones who decided to reopen.”

In the end, over 500 professors and grad students signed a petition appealing for more control over their classes and explaining that they felt unsafe teaching in-person classes while South Florida remains an epicenter of the pandemic. Still, the university opened its doors in mid-August as students from all over the country and the world returned.

“It is incorrect to assume that going to campus represents full risk, while staying home is a risk-free option,” said Frenk. “In fact, for some students, campus may be the safest place they can be.”

UM Reopens… Cautiously for in-person instruction
Students are happy to be back at university, but with some reservations.
Photo by Kylie Wang