Op-Ed

South Florida academic heads step up to lead community through coronavirus crisis | Opinion

As education leaders in a community threatened by hurricanes every year, we know the importance of planning, know-how, and flexibility in crisis response. We also know from experience that the single most important factor in recovery is collaboration.

Pandemics do not sweep into communities like hurricanes — you don’t feel the wind pick up or get a relatively accurate picture of what’s to come by watching the weather forecast. An even greater challenge in the face of a public health crisis is that how soon the worst of the storm passes depends almost entirely on human behavior.

During the past week, we have seen the number of cases of COVID-19 in Florida jump from fewer than 40 to more than 1,400 as of this writing — with the majority in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Thousands more are expected. The unity we have been fortunate enough to witness in the wake of hurricanes will become critical as our community, the nation and the world face the economic impact wrought by an unpredictable novel pathogen.

In some ways, the role of educators in the fight against COVID-19 is obvious. School is often the place where our children begin to understand the impact their behavior can have on large groups.

Practically every healthcare worker on the front lines of this pandemic received training at an institution of higher education. Nearly all research on testing, treatment, and vaccines involves universities.

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The resources we bring to the fight against COVID-19 include our first responders, academic health systems and thousands of doctors, nurses, researchers, clinical and support staff members giving this battle their all. What’s more, educational institutions themselves become laboratories for response and recovery, as administrators make decisions to protect our students, faculty, and staff.

Together, we represent almost 600,000 students and we employ more than 77,000 Floridians. The decisions we make with respect to closures and how students will continue to learn have a direct impact on millions of families, now and well into the future.

In the midst of those difficult decisions this week, on Tuesday, we made it a point to come together. As members of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council’s One Community One Goal Academic Leaders Council (ALC), we met via Zoom to bring each other up to speed on the operational status of our respective institutions, share best practices and discuss what may lie ahead for our community.

Our students are facing dramatic changes in the short term and the long term. This week, they are having to master new ways of learning, new ways of interacting with their teachers or professors — as well as their family and friends.

Months from now, graduations are unlikely to look like we had planned, and our graduates will face a job market palpably different from the one that existed before the virus hit. Our responsibility is helping them navigate the new reality.

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Yet, that is not the only role we will play in South Florida’s recovery. Our researchers and faculty members have expertise that must be deployed to help local businesses.

Our missions include making scientific discovery available to decision-makers at every level — from individuals and families wondering how to take care of themselves, to businesses learning how to protect their employees and clients, to policymakers enacting pronouncements to reduce the loss of life during the pandemic, measures to address the economic damage left in its wake and preparations for future emergencies.

We do not yet know how long COVID-19 will disrupt our daily lives. But we do know one thing: No matter how long it takes to recover, we are in it together.

Julio Frenk is the president of the University of Miami and 2020 chair of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council’s One Community One Goal Academic Leaders Council. Other members include Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg; Barry University President Mike Allen; St. Thomas University President David Armstrong; Florida Memorial University President Jaffus Hardrick; Miami Dade College President Rolando Montoya; and Miami Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

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