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USF students, faculty return to a quiet campus.

“It’s not your normal ‘woo hoo’ welcome back to school.”

On the first morning of the fall semester at the University of South Florida, Travis Bell, a broadcast news professor, stepped back into the same classroom he last taught in before the pandemic.

This time he carried a box of 50 masks and hand sanitizer, and wore a lanyard with a badge his 9-year-old daughter had made for him. It had his photo on it, in case his students wouldn’t know what he looked like under a mask.

On his way in, he snapped a photo of a desolate student parking lot that, on any other first day of classes, would have been filled with students circling to find a spot before giving up and heading to the other side of campus.

This semester, Bell joked, they wouldn’t be able to use parking as an excuse for being late. Inside his class, many of the seats were taped off to ensure social distancing.

It’s all different, he said. But as an educator teaching people how to describe things, he said he planned to tell his students he thought the word “unprecedented” was overused.

“This has happened before,” Bell said. “It’s been 100 years, but it’s happened. What is unprecedented though is the way we can teach. In 1918, there was no Teams or Zoom.”

He’s hesitant to say it’s exciting. “It’s not your normal ‘woo hoo’ welcome back to school,” he said.

But as a documentary filmmaker and former television journalist he feels it’s his responsibility to usher a new generation through changing times.

• • •

For years, the beginning of the school year at USF has been marked by hundreds of green and gold balloons dropping in a packed Marshall Student Center, where the university president would welcome students to campus.

This year, students watched on Facebook Live as computer-generated balloons fell over the digital rendering of Martin Luther King Plaza leading up to the center. The video cut to USF president Steve Currall and his wife, Cheyenne, in their on-campus home.

“Regardless of where you’re joining us from … we are one USF community, and there is strength in that community,” Currall said as people left bullhorn emoji signs in the comments.

“The reality is it’s hard to replicate that in a virtual space,” said Keri Riegler, director of new student connections and parent and family programs at USF. “That’s why people are drawn to those types of larger events; you’re part of something much larger than yourself.”

USF president Steve Currall, who played quarterback in high school, strikes a football pose with the school's mascot, "Rocky D. Bull" on the first day of classes Monday. At right is Currall's wife, Cheyenne Currall. Behind them is the Marshall Student Center, which did not see the usual first-day crowd. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]

Instead, Riegler said, her department has been focused on carving out digital spaces for students to connect, and hosting virtual meet-ups between students with common interests.

In the welcome video, Currall reminded students of the responsibility they carried in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and not engaging in large gatherings on or off campus. Such events have led to outbreaks on other campuses around the nation, prompting those schools to shift to online-only education.

On Monday, the Curralls stopped outside the Marshall center to greet students and take photos with “Rocky D. Bull,” the USF mascot, who also wore a mask.

“Come in,” Currall told his wife as they posed for a photo.

“6 feet,” she said.

“Not for you and me!” the president said.

“We have to set an example,” she reminded him.

Currall said he has emphasized personal responsibility in his messaging. He hopes people feel confident in the university’s reopening plans, which he said are scientific and evidence-based. He hopes the plan will be followed on and off-campus.

“It’s all in our hands now,” he said.

• • •

At a poster sale outside the Tampa campus bookstore, a small group of students flipped through images of Jack White, Quentin Tarantino films, Black Lives Matters signs and Animal Crossing imagery.

“Last year, this would have been packed,” said Kaylani Essue, a junior majoring in chemistry.

Essue said she’s happy to be back. Of the courses the university is offering, 59 percent have some sort of in-person component. Essue has one class that meets in person, a chemistry lab, which she said was not pleasant online.

“I feel kind of bad for the freshmen though,” she said. “It’s kind of lonely.”

Sorting through posters next to her was freshman Katelyn Morrison.

Morrison, of Massachusetts, moved into the Poplar dorm last week. All her classes are online. She’s majoring in public health.

She’s met a few people who live in her dorm and through group chats, but worries about making friends.

“It’s kind of awkward to just go up to people and start talking now,” she said.

Still, she said, she hopes people follow social distancing guidelines.

“I know it’s a lot different than what it’s supposed to be and it’s not always going to be like this,” she said. “I’m just hoping we don’t get sent home. I hope people don’t ruin it for us.”

• • •

Across campus, signs of a changed campus abound: stickers guiding the flow of foot traffic, tape marking spots not to sit, vending machines that dispense hand sanitizer, the library requiring a reservation to study. In the Marshall center, students in masks sit behind plexiglass asking those without face coverings to mask up.

Abigail Sy, a junior majoring in integrative animal biology, said on her shift, two people did not want to wear masks, but most she encountered were already wearing them or willing to wear one if they didn’t. She didn’t have to talk to those who were noncompliant, but said the thought of people doing that caused her anxiety.

“It’s just incredibly stressful,” she said. “College is already stressful enough, and then to have to worry about your health around thousands of people.”

Noncompliance will not be tolerated, Currall said. The university’s student and employee conduct codes have been updated to reflect consequences, which could range from verbal warnings to suspension or termination.

The university has also created a brigade of more than 120 faculty and staff volunteers trained in conflict management who can be called upon to help with noncompliant students.

They’re calling themselves “Respectful Responders,” said Steve Prevaux, a faculty and staff ombudsman who led the training.

“We look at things from a positive perspective,” he said. “It’s really an opportunity for a conversation and education more than anything else.”

Volunteers in teams of two are trained to respond calmly and ensure they listen to the perspective of the noncompliant students while de-escalating conflict and respectfully communicating university policies. In extreme cases, University Police can be called, though they don’t expect to use that.

• • •

Part of the reason Bell decided to have some in-person component to his class, he said, was to create a sense of responsibility among students.

Part of his role as a professor this semester, he said, is also to create some semblance of normalcy for students.

“College as a time of navigation of being alone as an adult is so valuable,” he said. “It’s learning to wake up on time, it’s learning to do their own laundry, it’s learning how the world works. ... I think it’s beneficial for students to have a place be able to gather so that it feels like school still.”

He said he plans to be strategic about in-person meetings to minimize risk. Some of his syllabus has changed, too, he said. And one of his first assignments is to have students create a television package on what returning to campus during a pandemic looks like.

As his students left class Monday morning, Bell sprayed and wiped down the tables they sat at before the next section of students came in, something all faculty have been asked to do.

“For everybody, it’s such a learning curve,” he said. “We all have to figure out how to be adaptable right now.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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