Near and far, UF students kick off Fall 2020 semester

As 52,000 University of Florida students began the Fall semester Monday, Century Tower’s bells chimed, students took first-day photos on the Plaza of the Americas, and classrooms — outfitted with distancing measures and COVID-19 precautions — came to life.

a law classroom with social distancing

Professor Ben Fernandez teaches legal drafting in a socially distanced classroom at UF's Levin College of Law, where Fall 2020 classes began on Aug. 24.

At a picnic table outside the student union, first-year student LaTera Allen had just finished the first session of her online Intro to International Relations class. As one of nearly 6,500 UF students beginning their college career during the pandemic, Allen knew her freshman year would be different from the norm. But the public relations student from Tennessee was ready to meet people in her major and start finding her place on campus. “I registered for the virtual student organization fair tomorrow,” she said.

The first day looked a little different for sophomore Grace Tovkach, who's in the same International Relations class. Tovkach is learning remotely from Hale’iwa, Hawaii, this semester, so with the time difference, the 2nd period class starts at 2:30 a.m.

Tovkach, an international relations major and the secretary the UF club Le Cercle Français, has been working with her fellow officers to plan remote events, from cooking to watching films.

“I think being so far away makes me even more invested in creating a good virtual experience for our members, because I want to have fun and meet people too,” she said.

Fall 2020 in numbers  1.5 million masks purchased for campus 5,120 meals safely delivered by Gator Dining 4,202 courses offered to students online, hybrid or in-person 5,000 gallons of hand sanitizer purchased for campus 99 stations on campus where PPE is available 10,000+ students tested through UF Health's Screen, Test and Protect Return-to-Campus Initiative before the first day of class


Math and computer science sophomore Andrew Penton's time zone difference isn't as daunting: While learning at home in Pensacola, he's only an hour behind Gainesville time. But he's working through the challenges of staying involved in his research lab, auditioning for the UF programming team, working as a teaching assistant and finding a virtual platform for UF chess club games — along with his classes. 

"It’ll be a little harder to manage my time at home," he said, "but I think the benefits outweigh the costs."

two students pose with a first day UF balloon sign


On a quieter-than-usual campus, scattered showers kept most picnic tables empty. A massive white tent on the North Lawn offered chairs for studying, outdoor class meetings and meal breaks. Buses still lined up at the student union and the HUB, but with passengers masked, physically distanced, and fewer in number. In front of Library West, clear plastic barriers separated masked Krishna Lunch servers, who had all tested negative for COVID-19, from customers who lined up, 6 feet apart, for plates of chick pea and potato curry.   

At Turlington Plaza, where the pandemic didn’t stop the Gator Greenbacks folks from handing out coupon books, senior Cosette Brown was tabling for her student organization, Christians on Campus. 

“I’m excited about my senior year no matter what it looks like,” said Brown, a health education and behavior major who lives on campus, although her classes are all online. “I feel OK being on campus. UF is taking the right protocols to keep us safe.”

In her residence hall, “people are abiding by the rules. My floormates are wearing masks,” she said. “We’re all trying to get through this together. If everyone does their part and wears masks, we can have a successful year.”

professor jang teaches a digital worlds class with social distance

Professor Seung Jang's digital design and visualization class in the Digital Worlds Institute.

For clinical assistant professor of nursing Dr. Karen Reed, the day started with meetings at 5:30 a.m., but preparations for the semester started back in March.

Through a combination of virtual education and in-person sessions, UF’s College of Nursing is “providing the best educational experience possible for our students, no matter what,” she said. “We are going to rise above whatever the circumstance is and make sure students have whatever they need to be successful.”

That meant opening today’s classes on Friday to find potential issues with the platforms, then working through the weekend to debug them. Dr. Reed also held a virtual open house last week to help students and their loved ones feel more at ease.

“A big part of our role as faculty members is not just to mentor students but emotionally provide them with that support that says, ‘We've got your back.’ In this time of COVID, that relationship is incredibly beneficial to their mental wellbeing, emotional intelligence and resilience.”

Nursing student Peter Chen, who’s starting his second semester in the accelerated BSN program, was looking forward to the hands-on patient care component of his curriculum. He’s also a little worried about how he’ll arrange childcare for his son, age 7, and daughter, 18 months, if schools go virtual again. But after combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army veteran knows how to adapt to changes.

“If you ask any vet, they'll tell you when you go on missions there's planning and rehearsal, but everyone knows when things kick off, nothing happens according to plan. That sense of ‘expect the unexpected’ helps you keep your balance if things don’t happen the way you think they will.”

Sorority recruitment via Zoom. Baking cookies in the dorm kitchen while wearing masks. All online classes. College life isn’t exactly what Mary Serviss pictured, but the first-year food science and human nutrition major says she’s loving it. 

“Online classes are not what I expected, but I did it senior year, so it’s not that bad. Moving away from home, living on campus — that's a big part of what I was looking forward to, and it's definitely made it feel more real. I also really want to join new clubs — that’s one of the reasons I came to UF.” (UF has nearly 1,000 student organizations listed in GatorConnect.)

On Monday, after two classes on Zoom, she planned to explore campus, maybe stopping by the bat houses.

“I feel like there’s a good balance of in-person and virtual activities,” she said. “I’m really proud of UF for being able to give us a really good experience and keeping things safe.”

Photo/video: Brianne Lehan, Wise Clairvoyant. Lead art: Shannon Alexander. Text: Alisson Clark August 31, 2020