TAMPA — University of South Florida students returning to class Monday found something new on every course syllabus:
A paragraph outlining USF's plan to hold classes online, via e-mail or a video service like Skype, in the event of emergency. And one of this fall's worst-case scenarios concerns a possible severe outbreak of swine flu that could force the suspension of classes, perhaps for weeks.
"In my mind, that's a high probability," said Tapas Das, USF's associate provost for policy analysis, planning and performance.
From ambitious plans to go completely virtual to providing dormitory residence advisers with plastic strip thermometers to give to students who feel feverish, the prospect of a severe swine flu outbreak has propelled USF into new territory.
Neither Das nor the medical director for student health could recall the kind of contingency planning now under way.
Public health officials say the H1N1 flu may affect more communities this fall than it did last spring, though it's impossible to predict how severe it could be.
Over the summer USF's Student Health Services has seen a small but consistent flow of patients with influenzalike illnesses presumed to be swine flu, said Dr. Egilda Terenzi, USF's medical director for Student Health Services.
USF initially confirmed cases of swine flu through the use of nasal swabs sent off for testing. But after three confirmations in late June and early July, public health officials said further swabs and testing were not necessary.
In an advisory to universities last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said campuses must balance the risk posed by a more severe form of the flu against the disruption of calling off classes.
But the CDC conceded that classes might have to be suspended if a university cannot maintain normal functioning.
The CDC also said it might recommend a pre-emptive suspension of classes if the flu becomes severe "in a significantly larger proportion of those affected" than during the spring.
Das said any decisions regarding closing the campus would be made only after close consultation with public health officials.
And Terenzi noted that the Florida Department of Health has said it does not expect school closures as a result of swine flu.
"What this will actually look like going forward will really just have to be evaluated as we go along," Terenzi said.
USF's total enrollment is 46,612, an increase of 2.3 percent from last year. Of that, 39,357 are on the Tampa campus, where about 5,400 students live in residence halls.
Before they arrived, students moving into in dorms were told to pack a thermometer, along with hand sanitizer and alcohol-based wipes.
USF also is working to provide information about the need for virus-killing hygiene through the Web, posters in dorms, stickers on bathroom mirrors and talks by dormitory residence advisers.
Terenzi said her office has set up a program to track the flu. The goal is not only to know how prevalent it is, but to serve more students than normal with a targeted assessment process and to identify those in high-risk categories who need extra care.
Students with the flu can expect to receive instructions to rest, isolate themselves, take fever-reducing medicines, drink lots of fluids and watch for signs of complications, such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, repeated vomiting, dehydration or trouble thinking clearly.
Students in high-risk categories probably will also be treated with Tamiflu or Relenza, Terenzi said. And students who go home to recover will still be able to call Student Health Services with questions.
Federal officials recommend staying home until 24 hours after a fever has gone away without the use of medication.
USF St. Petersburg, which has an enrollment of 3,893, does not have its own student health office, but its Center for Counseling, Health and Wellness refers students feeling ill to one of three university-affiliated doctors.
The focus now is to get as much information out as possible about preventing the flu, said Diane McKinstry, director of USF St. Petersburg's department of student achievement.
In St. Petersburg, USF administrators also are encouraging teachers to use a Web-based assignment and class information platform called Blackboard to work with students who miss class because of illness.
In Tampa, work to explore alternative methods of teaching such as Blackboard and Skype has been under way since early summer.
In recent months, Das said he consulted with officials at the University of Texas at Austin, Purdue University and Michigan State, all recognized for their work planning for pandemics. Along the way, he heard one of the schools considers the semester "null and void" if students get less than 12 weeks of instruction.
In the end, USF's goal is to prevent students from losing a semester due to a closure. Administrators also would be concerned about an extended closure affecting the spring semester or even graduation.
Moreover, administrators could not predict whether a closure in the fall would be something short enough to be made up with extra days of classes, or weekend classes in the spring.
That's why they want to be ready to conduct classes online or in other ways.
At first, Das said, it was hard to imagine teaching some courses in nontraditional ways. But he said USF professors have been working on backup plans to continue teaching even courses like music, theater and dance.
"This is, perhaps," he said, "an opportunity for us to be more creative."