As Dean of Students Jacob Diaz walked across the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus Wednesday morning, he was encouraged by what he saw. Students were wearing masks, sitting six feet apart and following the guidelines designed to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19, an issue currently plaguing college campuses across the country.
“I made it a point to welcome them to campus and to thank them for wearing their masks,” he said. “A few of them said back to me, “I have to do my part.””
That hasn’t been the sentiment everywhere, and many schools are cracking down on students who are disregarding the rules, including the University of Tampa. The school handed out interim suspensions last week after discovering a group of students had thrown a large gathering at a residence hall, violating the Spartan Shield Health Safety Plan that calls for social distancing and other measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
In a message to students and staff, UT Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Stephanie Russell Krebs said the school will “continue to move swiftly to remove those from the community who endanger others” by not following the safety plan.
Diaz said he’s not surprised that students, after being home with their families since March, are eager to see their friends and socialize. However he said that USF would take similar action to UT and provisionally suspend students should they behave recklessly.
“Attending USF is a privilege,” he said. “If a student is making choices and abusing that privilege by putting themselves in harm’s way, that privilege would be in jeopardy.”
If students or staff members violate mask regulations, it would be treated as a code of conduct violation and would go through the same process as any other disciplinary issue. So far, though, the message seems to be getting through. Social media messages with school mascot Rocky the Bull wearing a mask have been effective, along with signage around campus and positive role modeling by staff and students.
“We’re constantly reinforcing the message that these seemingly small things are important to help us be together safely,” Diaz said.
Following the suspensions at UT, students seem to be paying closer attention to the rules as they realize their actions will have consequences and that their personal choices can have an effect on the entire campus, said UT spokesman Eric Cárdenas. Classes began Wednesday.
“I believe the student interim suspension last week emphasized the Spartan Shield Guidelines,” Cárdenas said, noting that he’s seeing students complying with mask requirements and maintaining social distance. “Students understand the gravity of the situation, and I believe they want to stay on campus to continue their education.”
At Eckerd College, where students begin a phased move-in this week, students are expected to abide by The Eckerd Together Promise, which requires them to practice social distancing, among other preventative measures. Outdoor gatherings will be capped at 25 students, while indoor gatherings in areas other than residence hall rooms or suites will be limited to 10 people. Masks and social distancing will be required. Violations will result in temporary suspension from classes, college housing, specific areas of campus or the school itself. Suspension or expulsion from housing, classes and school are likely sanctions for breaking the rules.
A New York Times survey of more than 1,500 American colleges and universities revealed at least 26,000 cases of Covid-19, along with 64 deaths, since the pandemic began. USF’s Tampa campus has reported 220 cases, while the St. Pete campus has only 10.