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USF preps for potential online learning amid coronavirus concerns

Margie Manning

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Photo credit: Aimee Blodgett/USF

University of South Florida is developing plans for a major shift in how students learn, as a potential step to contain coronavirus.

Several universities nationwide, including Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, have already decided to cancel in-person classes and move lessons online, the Associated Press reported.

USF has not made that decision yet, but university officials outlined their preparations at a meeting of the Board of Trustees on Tuesday.

A large group of USF staff has been meeting for at least 10 days to pull all the stakeholders together, with a smaller task force chaired by Donna Peterson, dean of the College of Public Health, taking a lead role, said USF president Steve Currall.

“To our knowledge, there are no coronavirus cases within the USF community at this time,” Currall told trustees. But if cases start to emerge, “That would accelerate our inclination to close down the campus.”

Because USF’s campuses are geographically separated — in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota — the potential closure of one campus would not mean every campus would close, said Ralph Wilcox, provost and executive vice president.

The challenge is to prepare professors to provide remote delivery, Wilcox added.

“I would caution everyone in the room that as we move from face-to-face delivery to remote delivery, we need to set reasonable expectations. That doesn’t mean we’ll move 3,000 different courses from face-to-face to a fully engaged online experience. It will be a gradual transition,” Wilcox said.

USF has developed a toolkit for faculty members, helping them provide remote classroom instruction.

“We’ve had staff work night and day, seven days a week, to ensure our readiness to move — should it be necessary — to comprehensive delivery remotely. But we’re not there yet, and frankly we hope we have at least a little more time to ensure that all our professors are engaged and ready for that transition,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox said he believes USF is equipped to handle what he considers Phase 1 of the situation.

“There will be more to come and should we find this playing out as many scientists are suggesting over months if not years, the likelihood is that we will over time have to transition to fully online delivery. That will be expensive. But we’re not at that point,” Wilcox said. “My focus is on getting through this week and preparing for when students return from spring break, the week after next.”

USF has established a designated coronavirus website.

The university earlier cancelled all university-sanctioned international travel activities for spring break and on Tuesday, the USF Office of Student Success cancelled all university-sponsored alternative spring break trips.

Additionally, Wilcox addressed restricting nonessential large gatherings in an email Tuesday afternoon, according to The Oracle. Conferences of more than 100 people in the next 30 days have to be canceled or postponed if they include people from another state or country, but smaller gatherings of 100 people or less that do not include people from outside Florida can be held as long as there’s written approval from a college dean, vice president or regional chancellor, the student newspaper reported.

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