With the lingering threat of COVID-19, what's next for USF?

While many faculty must acclimate to the Canvas Learning Management System and Microsoft Teams for their now virtual classes, Dr. Richard Pollenz is used to hosting live video lectures for online students. His concern lies with how lab courses -- like his fall offering, where students spend the semester isolating a bacteriophage in the lab -- will work if laboratory doors remain shuttered beyond summer.

"I've been thinking very hard about whether it's possible to do any of these types of wet lab techniques -- can students send dirt and watch me extract phage samples? Can I even get into the lab myself? Does learning by video have the same value for a student trying to develop their scientific identity? I don't have immediate solutions," he says.

Despite the challenges, Pollenz says coronavirus offers a unique opportunity to engage his students in "citizen science" efforts. He encourages them to compete in a free online game by Howard Hughes Medical Institute called Foldit, which helps students learn how proteins fold by analyzing sequences that are related to the COVID-19 genome. Data collected solving Foldit's "protein puzzles" could eventually help researchers develop drugs that prevent COVID-19 proteins from binding to human cells, Pollenz says.

"Using citizen scientists is at the forefront of what is happening with COVID-19, so from an analysis point of view: there's a lot we can do outside the lab moving forward," he says.

Students adjust to at-home learning

While most Gen-Z students are comfortable navigating the tech aspect of online schooling, many say that staying focused in a less structured environment presents new challenges.
A virtual commencement at USF is scheduled for May 9, with recorded speeches from student leaders and other dignitaries. USF is also planning to expand the summer commencement ceremonies that are currently scheduled for August to include students who would be graduating this spring, should they choose to participate.
"For me, the most frustrating part is on a personal level -- figuring out how to manage my schedule at home,'' says Caitlyn Coleman, a first-year microbiology student. "Some professors are doing live lessons on Zoom; others are recording videos of the lecture that are not live -- so I can watch any time. I'm trying to attend classes at times that work best for me while maintaining my work quality, but it's hard to stay on top of things."

Danielle McDonald, Assistant VP for Community Development and Student Engagement and Dean of Students, notes that students who are sheltering in place in different time zones or competing with family members for time on a shared computer, also face unique challenges in a virtual learning environment.??Mae Horne, a first-year student double-majoring in cellular molecular biology and public health, misses in-person peer dialogue.

"I don't have trouble learning in an online format, but being stuck at home is a different experience,'' Horne says. "I feel like I'm lacking the motivation I typically have, and for some of my more discussion-based classes, it feels like the isolation is having an effect on the educational experience. I miss the debates."

One unexpected positive outcome of the shift to virtual learning, Dean McDonald notes, is a new set of analytics that help the school identify which students are struggling.

"Now that classes are online, we can track how long a student is in a Canvas class compared to other people in the program. If other people are spending three hours in the class and they're only spending 20 minutes -- there's likely something going on,'' McDonald says. "We're able to see which students are not engaging and identify who might need support before it's too late."

USF steps up to support students

To alleviate academic stress during a dramatic mid-semester overhaul, USF implemented an option for students to select a "satisfactory or unsatisfactory" (S/U) grade instead of letter grades for the semester. In this system, achieving a C-grade or higher is satisfactory.

"We know that changing to a remote learning environment would be a transition for both students and faculty. Many have never taught online, and certainly didn't plan their classes to be online," McDonald says.

?"Some students are excelling in the online format, so they want to keep their grades in the scale. Others are concerned about whether grad, medical, and law schools will accept an S/U grade. ... This isn't a perfect solution, but we're hoping to take the stress off students -- and I think moving forward, everyone is going to note that the whole world is in the same imperfect situation."

To help students access hardware they may need to continue schooling while computer labs and libraries are closed, USF implemented a laptop loaner program, funded through the university and student government. USF currently mails the loaner laptops free of charge.

Although residence halls closed, about 350 students in need of housing are still receiving residential and dining services on campus. USF's Feed-A-Bull food pantries also remain staffed and supplied, serving students across three campuses. The university also strives to engage students in extracurriculars, despite the social distance.

"We're continuing to try to engage students with what it means to be a Bull. We can't totally replicate programs on campus, but staff is doing creative things. I sat in on an open-mic night that was done on Instagram, and a virtual trivia night last week," McDonald notes.

Another focus is on keeping students who work for the university employed. The campus rec center, for instance, has moved its exercise, yoga, and dance instruction online. USF also set up a job responsibility clearinghouse, where supervisors can match student staff with projects at the IT help desk and campus grounds.

"I'm proud of the work we've been doing and the meetings we've been in where the conversation continues to be around what is right to do for our students and what is caring," says McDonald.

"We may not always be able to meet the expectations students have -- but we are always talking about what is right, and we are committed to doing what is caring.''

Visit the USF website for more information on commencement plans.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.