TAMPA — It began before the fall semester could get underway.
The University of Tampa suspended an undisclosed number of students who had been part of a large gathering inside a residence hall, violating new rules intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
A few days later, after classes began, the school found out about more gatherings, this time off-campus. More suspensions followed.
As cases continued to mount earlier this month, images of university president Ronald L. Vaughn going without a mask on campus began to circulate on social media. And the university instituted a rule that students could no longer visit each other’s dorm rooms.
It has not been the smoothest of reopenings at this small but growing private school of under 10,000 students just across the Hillsborough River from downtown.
As of the last official count, the number of COVID-19 cases there stood at 216 since the fall semester started in late August. A more detailed look reveals the university is reporting about the same number of cases as schools many times its size.
In the first two full weeks of September, for example, the University of Tampa reported 192 cases — the same number as the University of Central Florida, which has seven times more students. Just across town, the University of South Florida, with five times the enrollment, reported 157 cases during that period.
But Stephanie Krebs, the dean for students who has penned many of the messages to the campus community in recent months, said the semester is unfolding as expected. Most cases, she said, have been mild to moderate, no student has been hospitalized, and 98 have recovered and are back in classes after quarantining.
“For our size of population, of course we’d love to see a plateau with our numbers for sure, but we’re not surprised with where we sit,” Krebs said.
Students and faculty members say the school is doing the best it can under the circumstances. The problem, they say, is some students who refuse to follow the rules.
“I feel comforted by the school, but not so much by the students,” said Brianna Henriquez, a junior majoring in biology.
She said she would have preferred not to return to campus this semester, but didn’t want to delay graduating.
Ellie Merton, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry, said she thinks the university is doing as much as it can to keep people safe. Still, she has seen students in the dorms violating social distancing rules.
“It’s a little loosey goosey around here,” she said. “I should not be policing other students, really. It’s stressful and difficult to get along with people and make friends if you’re seen as stiff about the rules.”
Kassidy Micciche, a sophomore, said she lives off campus. She said she feels safe on campus and in classrooms, but has heard about off-campus gatherings.
“It’s kind of just being prepared for the unknown,” she said.
The majority of people on campus follow the rules and wear masks, said Krebs, the dean for students.
“At the end of the day, students don’t want to be in quarantine or isolation, so I think there’s a primary motivator to comply,” she said.
The numbers released by the university are cases self-reported by students and faculty and those who test positive at the on-campus health center, which extended its hours in September. The center tests only individuals who have symptoms of the virus. But the university asks all students in contact with those who have tested positive to isolate for 14 days, whether they are symptomatic or not.
Krebs said those procedures are based on the supply of tests as well as earlier guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to not test asymptomatic individuals. The university is reviewing those rules, she said.
Political science professor Bill Myers was approved for teaching remotely and said he is glad he doesn’t have to worry about wiping down work stations or dodging people on campus.
And while he’s been encouraged by the university’s quick response to cases, he said reopening without better testing in place was a mistake. He said he’s also worried about policies that rely too heavily on what students do.
“So far it seems like things have not spiraled out of control, but there are certainly questions on whether students are getting tested and reporting,” Myers said.
“You’ve got people interacting on campus and they leave and interact with other people outside the campus. So it impacts what’s going on in the greater community," he said. "If we’re not doing rigorous testing, then I think we’re just hoping it’s going to be okay.”
Liv Coleman, who also teaches political science, said she, too, is worried about testing.
“We don’t have the testing regimen of some of the other universities and that’s a fact, but I think the university is doing the best they can,” she said. “I was definitely very leery going into the semester.”
Coleman said she teaches outdoors and has embraced “low tech” pedagogy to emphasize health and safety. Using Zoom, she meets separately with students who are unable to attend.
Classes at University of Tampa began Aug. 28, with most of them held in person. School officials said they had received feedback that that’s what most students wanted.
Faculty and students at high risk could ask to be approved for remote instruction. The rest started the year taking face-to-face classes, adjusted in size to maintain social distancing, or hybrid classes that included an online component.
Fall enrollment numbers are not finalized yet, according to university spokesman Eric Cardenas, but enrollment last year was 9,600. The average undergraduate student taking a full course load pays around $43,910 per year in tuition, fees, room and board and books.
Myers said he has not seen any evidence that financial concerns drove the university’s decision to reopen the way it did.
”We certainly don’t have the endowment of a place like Harvard, but there was no immediate concern on anyone’s part that if we didn’t open up, we’d be in serious financial straits,” he said.
The main focus is figuring out how to continue to teach students in difficult times, said Coleman. “I think everyone’s doing the best they can.”