I attended the first day of a massive COVID-19 vaccination event here on the University of Florida campus that was so big that only our football venue, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, was large enough to hold it.
The mood was celebratory — some of the newly inoculated danced and sang afterward — and while the event was open to everyone, the primary focus was to get as many shots into the arms of our students as possible. The goal: 5,000 people that first day and 20,000 by the end of the week.
By mid-week, nearly all 20,000 appointments were filled and spots were being booked for the following week.
The event also represented a critical moment in which the university, like so many other places around the country, is shifting from playing defense to going on the offensive. Fairly or not, colleges and universities nationwide have been labeled as hotbeds of COVID-19 spread and, to be sure, we have seen stories where some members of our communities have not behaved in the most responsible manner.
But the overwhelming majority of students, staff and faculty here at UF, and I believe those elsewhere, have embraced safety measures aimed at stopping the virus’s spread. What’s more, the university has accomplished something some people said wasn’t possible.
We have kept going.
From the launch of our testing program in the early days of the pandemic — 200 tests per day at first, modest by today’s standards — we quickly expanded our efforts to include contact tracing, routine surveillance testing, wastewater testing at campus dorms, isolation and quarantine dorms, policies requiring face coverings and physical distancing — in other words, a veritable kitchen-sink approach aimed at defeating an enemy unlike anything we had seen in our lifetimes.
The results were not perfect. We’ve seen our share of COVID cases on our campus — mostly among our students — and a number of students and student groups have faced conduct proceedings. It is worth noting that we have seen no evidence of viral transmission in any classroom or lab setting.
Our decisions to start bringing faculty and staff back to their offices a year ago and to have numerous in-person classes in Fall 2020 and to have as many in-person class sections in Spring 2021 as we had in Spring 2020 pre-pandemic drew their share of criticism.
But we followed the science, and our comprehensive plan of attack — developed under the guidance of UF Health, our academic medical center — has been highly effective in allowing the university to keep operating and to effectively meet its mission of research, education, service and economic impact.
After a brief pause, our researchers got back in the lab and out in the field, earned a record $900.7 million in research funding — despite the pandemic — and kept going.
When the pandemic struck our campus Spring 2020, we switched almost overnight to more than 5,000 fully online class sections and kept going.
In the past year, as we transitioned from online to increasingly more in-person classes, we have taught more students, awarded more instructional credits, graduated more students and have had more students apply to UF than ever before. Our students, faculty and staff have kept going.
It’s too soon to pop the champagne corks just yet. With the end of the Spring semester at hand, UF now finds itself at a rather dramatic turning point: Just as vaccines became available to anyone age 16 and older in Florida, UF is seeing a new surge in cases, likely brought on by some relaxing their vigilance too soon.
Our campus is fully open and we have numerous in-person events, including the 28 in-person graduation ceremonies I will attend starting the end of this month.
Our goal is to see the class of 2025 have a freshman year that is safe and normal, both in and outside the classroom.
That’s what our students and their families tell us they want. In mid-February, I received an email from the mother of a son and daughter in college. Her son attends UF; her daughter attends a university in California, where a lockdown was in full effect.
" … I often think that my son is much better off at University of Florida than being here in his home state of California,” she wrote. “Our kids only get four years of an undergraduate experience. Thank you for taking a ‘Faith over Fear’ approach and for trusting your students to carry on through this pandemic.”
Indeed, my faith lies in our students, faculty and staff and our medical experts. They represent the very best of America’s can-do attitude. And they will keep going.
Kent Fuchs is the president of the University of Florida.