Three of Remy LaRocca’s flights have already been cancelled.
For the past few weeks, the 20-year old junior at Ringling College of Art and Design (RCAD) has been trying to figure out how to get back to Sarasota. But traveling from her home state of Connecticut, with some of the country’s lowest cases of Covid-19, has been almost impossible since airlines have been reducing flights. She’s even tried booking tickets to Sarasota out of nearby states like New York with no luck. As of right now, her best bet is flying into Orlando, where one of her college dorm roommates thinks her family will let LaRocca spend the night before they both drive back to school in the morning—an idea that LaRocca’s mom isn’t too happy about.
“She’s nervous because someone could have the virus,” LaRocca says. “It’s just a stressful thing to plan out. Everyone back home is already saying that there’s going to be a big outbreak in Sarasota, and no one is going to let us stay.”
LaRocca is just one of thousands of college students heading back to Sarasota and Manatee this month. Along with Ringling College, the region is also home to New College of Florida, State College of Florida, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, the Sarasota campus of Florida State University College of Medicine and Asolo Conservatory, LECOM and specialized schools like the East West College of Natural Medicine. While some of these students have opted to stay home and take classes online, the majority, like LaRocca, will be moving back to campus for some form of face-to-face instruction.
The in-person reopening comes as the state reached record-breaking highs of coronavirus fatalities, including single-day records of more than 276 deaths per day this past Tuesday, Aug. 11, beating its previous record of 257 on July 31. College and university administrators are aware of the numbers—and the need to keep students and the off-campus community safe.
The Florida Board of Governors released a blueprint in May for schools reopening, including suggestions such as on-campus testing, contact tracing and campus wide surveillance. Each college or university can create its own plan, meaning that safety measures vary from campus to campus.
“One of the things that we have communicated is that it’s everyone’s personal responsibility to each other,” New College provost Barbara Feldman said. “There is just no way for us to police everybody.”
Feldman, who says that an outbreak on campus “absolutely can happen,” points to New College's months of planning this summer to figure out how to reopen campus with as many precautions as necessary.
Some of those safety measures include random campus testing on at least 10 percent of the campus population at any given time. Students and employees are also expected to submit their most recent Covid-19 test results to the school, administered on or after July 22, before they’re allowed to return to campus.
Larry Thompson, Ringling College’s president, has also confirmed that RCAD will be doing contact tracing, mandating face masks at all times while on campus and stretching classes over several classrooms where professors will have their lessons live streamed into other rooms, among other safety measures.
Ringling also decided to hold all classes online while giving students the option to take classes in-person if they chose to. LaRocca, who is a photography student, chose to take all of her studio courses in person.
“Face to face is more effective than total online learning because [Ringling] is such a creative environment,” Thompson says. “We had about one-third of our students decide to go online, but of that one-third, close to a quarter of them didn’t have a choice because they were international students who needed visas to get into the United States.”
Thompson also believes that Ringling’s campus culture was another factor in choosing to reopen for the fall.
“Students don’t really leave the campus [Ringling is a residential school] that much because they’re focused on their work,” Thompson says. “It’s almost like a professional college, like a medical school. It’s not like going to a party school, it’s not even close to that. We have almost a quasi-bubble.”
Others argue that returning to campus could be the safest place for students. Steven Kesheshian has spent all summer in Sarasota. The Lebanese-born 21-year-old, who studies economics and applied math, didn’t have a choice to go back home to Lebanon. Fortunately, Kesheshian received emergency funding from New College that covered the cost of housing this summer.
Having stayed in Sarasota these past few months, he doesn’t think the community should worry about college students.
“I’ve seen people not wearing masks all the time,’ Kesheshian says. “Or people at Walmart will try to cut each other in line, even though we’re supposed to be six feet apart. I’m more scared of going to the grocery store, where people are anti-mask, than being on campus.”
Now that classes are starting, he’s worried about not experiencing the milestones he’s been looking forward to since enrolling as a first year four years ago.
“Being a first-generation student, I was excited to graduate, because I wanted to have my family there,” Kesheshian says. “But it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen.”
Kesheshian and other students are hoping they don’t end in limbo again like students at other schools in states like Indiana and Georgia that have already reopened this fall and immediately had outbreaks.
Right now, uncertainty is the only thing that is certain.
“One of my friends is skipping this year because she doesn’t like the half-and-half class structure, so we have a vacant room in our dorm,” LaRocca says. “We asked if we were going to have another roommate, or if some random person we don’t know was going to move in, and [the school] didn’t really give us a real answer.”