TAMPA, Fla. — University of South Florida students and staff started the new academic year Monday amid uncertainty about the pandemic.
Although Gabriela Caveda started her second year at USF, Monday was the first time she's ever been able to take classes in person.
"I'm very nervous, but I'm excited. I hope that things get better and that things get more back to normal, excited to meet classmates and finally have a social college experience," said Caveda.
USF is not requiring vaccinations or masks, but they are strongly encouraging both.
The students ABC Action News reporter Erik Waxler spoke to Monday morning said just about everyone in their classes was wearing a mask.
"I don't want to get sick. Or anyone else to get sick. So as long as I'm able to go to school and not miss a day because of COVID or anything else type of sickness, then I'll be happy," said student Matthew Giraldo.
"I choose to wear it because I want to be safe. And I live with roommates, and I don't want to bring anything home that could potentially infect anyone else," said Caveda.
USF, along with other colleges, said they are monitoring the pandemic daily and will make changes to protocols if needed.
USF said they're offering free vaccinations at all three campuses.
"Students can make an appointment or they can just walk in. We really want everyone to take advantage of the vaccine that's available. It is protective against infection. More importantly, it is protective against severe illness," said Donna Peterson, dean of USF's College of Public Health.
But not everyone is following recommendations.
Nathan Peace said he's not planning on wearing a mask.
"The masks make my face all sweaty. So it makes me a little unhappy. That's just my reasoning. I know there's just a whole bunch more that goes into it," said Peace.
He also has yet to be vaccinated.
"My grandma really wants me to get vaccinated. Just haven't gotten around to it. If it stops me from traveling. I really want to travel? I'll get it."
USF officials said that students who test positive for COVID will have beds available on campus where they can isolate themselves.
The school will also help find temporary housing for those who need to quarantine after exposure to the virus.
Some classes will offer students a way to link in if they are quarantined through applications like Teams.
"Right now, we are feeling pretty confident that students are going to exhibit that same old spirit that they always do and be part of the collective solution to this problem which is to get vaccinated, to wear face coverings, and to just be smart," said Peterson.
There are free masks and testing available on campus.
It may not be a completely normal beginning to the fall semester, but closer than it has been in many months.
"My hopes for the weeks to come is that everyone stays safe, that we have a good semester and get things rolling again. I really want to get back to campus and join clubs and have a good college experience," said Caveda.