MIAMI (CBSMiami) – COVID-19 is forcing dramatic changes at the University of Miami, where there are big questions about what the fall semester will look like.
To break down what the school is doing to safely get students back on campus, Dr. Julio Frenk, UM’s president, spoke with CBS4’s Eliott Rodriguez and Lauren Pastrana.
Q: What is the campus going to look like? What are the classrooms going look like for students in the fall?
A: Well, it’s very different. We are working very hard to make sure that our students can start their fall semester in person and on time on the campus. But it’s got to be done in a safe way. So that means a total reconfiguration of every space, reducing the density of spaces, and that includes residence halls, dining halls, classrooms, any space will be redesigned with reminders to keep saying distance. We hope to encourage everyone to wear a mask whether in public. There will be pervasive presence of hand sanitizers. There will be crews making sure everything is clean. And there will be a lot of testing, tracing and tracking. So we’re really getting ready for the fall.
Q: What is the latest on layoffs and furloughs at the university? What numbers can you give us?
A: You know, every university, and particularly those that have a comprehensive academic health system like we do, its UHealth, have been impacted. On the one hand, we have had to issue refunds as our students had to go back home to finish their last semester. And on the other hand, we followed very rigorously the governor’s order to delay all elective procedures at UHealth. All of those represented very serious losses of revenue. We’re working very hard with our trustees to mitigate that. But that has required a variety of measures. We are reducing expenditures in a major way. And we have introduced some a very carefully designed program of some furloughs and layoffs. Particularly, we’re trying to take advantage of the fact that there’s a natural calendar, academic calendar. So it does actually slow down during the summer. And especially this summer when we’re not going to have the usual presence of high school students in camps or different conferences. And we’re taking advantage of that so that we can furlough as few employees as we can. Most of them will come back afterwards, but it is part of a fiscally responsible policy to first of all mitigate the loss that we have already suffered. And secondly, be ready since we still don’t know what’s going to happen in the fall. There may be a second wave. And we need to make sure that the university continues to be in a very strong financial situation so that we can fulfill our mission to our students to and to our community.
Q: With athletics taking up a big chunk of the expenses at the university, what cutbacks are you anticipating having to do there?
A: Well, we’re working very hard to make sure that we have a regular football season. We greatly value our athletics program. It’s an integral part of the educational experience. And in the fall, football, of course, is very important. So we’re going to keep our students very safe, that’s our number one priority. We will do more testing more frequently on them, and we will have all kinds of facilities. The good thing is we have the top academic health system, the only academic health system in South Florida, UHealth. They are ready with the test with every provision to keep our students safe. My expectation is that we will play a full season, although it’s very likely that we will do that without fans in stadiums. But most of the games will be broadcast, and we hope we will still provide a great experience for our students for our community.
Q: What do you tell the parents of freshmen looking forward to starting at the University of Miami in the fall and the mother and father are concerned about sending their child there?
A: You know, what I would tell them is we are taking this pandemic very seriously. It happens to be the case that my professional area of expertise is global public health. This is a fourth pandemic that I’ve been through. I have a lot of experience and we have a very experienced team, both on the university, our emergency management team, and UHealth. So we’re being extremely careful and conscientious. We’re going to be testing students, we have created separate facilities, in case any student turns out to be positive so that they can be isolated and continue their instruction. We will continue to provide online alternatives in a blended model where students are on campus, but they also take some of their instruction online so that there can be enough spacing. We will always have safety as our number one priority. Now, one element of reassurance, but not for complacency, is that the population we’re talking about is the lowest risk age group. Most people who are in the age group of our college undergraduate students, even, will recover if they get the disease. That doesn’t mean we let our guard down because there have been some cases and even some deaths among young people. But by and large, this is a population group with a low risk. Having said that, we’re going to be very vigilant that there’s no transmission, that we keep cases when they occur, it’s a highly contagious disease, but when they occur, we will be doing enough tests that we can isolate those students in a very, in close proximity, we’re reserving spaces. And as I was saying, before, we will be sending every, every area of the university so that we can keep safe distance. We are going to encourage everyone to use a face mask. Face masks, protect oneself, but they mostly protect other people. And it’s a sort of mutuality of trust and of responsibility where ‘I protect you, you protect me,’ and we try to build that culture that we’re all taking care of everyone else, which is a very strong culture at the University of Miami. We call it ‘Careful Canes.’ And that’s the spirit that we want to bring. So I would tell the parents that they can be assured that we will take very good care. That’s our most sacred duty take good care of our students.
Q: The university made a bit of news [Wednesday] announcing that it will temporarily drop standardized testing requirements for students. What’s the reason for this change?
A: Well, the reason is many fold. Right now, there’s a very practical reason. It’s become very difficult to actually take the standardized test because of the pandemic. Having said that, there’s been a very vigorous discussion in higher education institutions about whether to go what’s called ‘test optional.’ It’s not that we’re not going to use it this, but whether we make them optional. Even now, the standardized tests are only one element in a comprehensive admissions process. We take into account everything. We take into account grade-point average at high school. We take into account the kind of curriculum the student took. We take into account the family and community circumstances. We try to select students who have fought hard to get to the point where they are. So standardized tests are only one element as important as they may be. Many other universities have gone test optional. The most notable case recently is the whole university of California system. I think this is a big resume, but this time, this was the time to do it, because there were also practical difficulties in administering and taking the test.