Even after first case of coronavirus, UCF is expecting some students back on campus

Photo via UCF College of Medicine/Instagram
Despite the University of Central Florida having confirmed a case of COVID-19 on the main campus, biomedical and research graduate students are still expected to show up to the lab.

This information came from a UCF graduate student and teaching assistant, who asked to remain anonymous.

"I'm very scared," the student said. "We are being forced to go to the lab."

On March 17, UCF put out an alert informing all students, faculty and staff that the school was "extending remote instruction through the end of the spring semester." This means that students get to work from home online. Yet this policy isn't being extended to all graduate and Ph.D. students, something that wasn't made publicly obvious. The student says UCF should change the guidelines to make remote work mandatory for all students.

"I just fear it will be too late before they act and change these guidelines," the student said. "We are in deep trouble."

Most of the graduate students at the lab are on contract for research and teaching assistant positions, working on various industrial and government-funded projects. "Many of us cannot afford the risk of getting fired as a graduate student," the student said.

The student provided Orlando Weekly with UCF's "COVID-19 Emergency Remote Work Procedure" document, which states that remote work arrangements will remain effective for the duration of the university's response to the pandemic "under state and federal guidance."

"This is an SOS call," the graduate student said. "Please help us. There are thousands of us here."

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However, in the next paragraph, the guidelines state that UCF reserves the right to deny requests to work from home contingent on job duties and circumstances.

"Department heads and designees have the discretion to approve or deny requests for remote work arrangements based on the prioritization and preservation of university and unit business needs," the document says.

Which the student says makes the rest of the "flashy and elaborate" remote work guidelines null and void for some graduate students, other contract workers and anyone else the school deems essential right now.

According to the student, the safety measures have been left at the individual discretion of the faculty, and this caveat is being used "brutally" by some Ph.D. supervisors in the research lab. The student says they are being made to enter the campus and then use public transportation to get to their workplace at the biomedical facilities in Lake Nona.

"They are still forcing us to ride a crowded shuttle service," the student said. "Many of us are international students and have really nowhere else to go. They cannot go back to their home country due to the risk, and any attempt to stay indoors here is being thwarted."

According to the graduate student, UCF is doing this because projects have work requirements, and they need their labs to continue producing research in order to protect their reputation and contracts. "I know the work is important, but things are getting out of hand, in my opinion," the grad student said.
Photo via UCF College of Medicine/Instagram
A person at the UCF biomedical building who wished to remain unnamed because they are not authorized to speak on the record confirmed that Ph.D. students are indeed "working in shift plan," which means they are scheduled so that they're not all in the lab at the same time.

"Each lab is only permitted to have two people in it at any one time to comply with social distancing," the person said. "And one of those two includes the principal investigator."

The source said that, so far, this is the only schedule available, though the school may reconsider other options if the virus spread continues to get worse. Until then, students are stuck with the current setup.

"We have our schedule now set for the next two weeks starting Monday," the source said. "After that, they'll reassess."

Rachel Smith, the UCF media relations coordinator, says that while the UCF shuttles are still in operation, Transdev – the shuttle vendor – has put social distancing practices in place, with a limit of 10 students per shuttle.

"In the case of an overflow, a back-up shuttle will be called to transport those passengers," Smith said.

"I just fear it will be too late before they act and change these guidelines," the student said. "We are in deep trouble."

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Smith also says that only people critical to maintaining time-sensitive and necessary research, and who have been identified by lead lab faculty, have been granted access to labs by the Office of Research.

"UCF faculty are asked to be lenient and sensitive with their demands on students at this time, including with lab operations," Smith said. "UCF reserves the right to limit or stop research that is not consistent with these procedures or poses a health threat to personnel."

However, the anonymous graduate student says the safety measures put in place may not be sufficient and are likely putting everyone at great risk.

"I fear that is not enough," the graduate student said. "As much as I want the campus to run in a normal way, I really think we are in crisis."

The university already has confirmed cases of COVID-19, and some people have been isolated, the student says. The student fears their work will be impeded by the virus, anyway, if they become infected from exposure, and so the guidelines should be modified sooner than later.

"This is an SOS call," the graduate student said. "Please help us. There are thousands of us here."

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all bars and nightclubs in Florida were closed on March 17 for 30 days. As of March 18, Central Florida restaurants are still open for takeout and delivery, and grocery stores are open during limited hours. Follow CDC guidelines and Orange County advisories on staying safe.
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