As Gov. Ron DeSantis increasingly points to young adults as the source for a spike in coronavirus cases in Florida, public universities across the state are moving forward with plans to reopen campuses in the fall.
The Florida university system’s Board of Governors on Tuesday approved individual reopening plans put together by each of the state’s 12 state universities.
Board Chairman Syd Kitson acknowledged it is likely schools will see new cases pop up as students and employees return to campus in the fall.
“It is clear that the COVID-19 virus will not likely disappear anytime soon and positive virus cases in campus communities will likely occur. Social-distancing policies and other protections for students and employees will become the norm for the foreseeable future,” Kitson said during Tuesday’s board meeting in Orlando.
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Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, who attended the meeting, stressed the importance of “personal responsibility” when reopening campuses. He told university leaders to emphasize the use of facemasks and hand washing and to encourage individuals to stay home when they feel sick.
“Florida data informs us that a younger demographic is now testing positive for COVID-19 than before. Fortunately, the effects on the young are milder ... but we need to continue to protect the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions,” said Rivkees, who is also the secretary of the Florida Department of Health.
Florida universities have been working on plans to reopen campuses after the coronavirus pandemic emptied out campuses in March.
All of the Florida university leaders said Tuesday they will require the use of facemasks on campus, with a few schools saying they intend to reprimand employees and students who do not comply.
For example, Florida State University President John Thrasher told the board that employees who do not use facemasks or abide by social-distance guidelines could be suspended.
The state universities also have plans to reduce class sizes and shrink the number of in-person courses in the fall, in order to allow students and faculty to remain at least six feet apart while indoors.
Some schools, including the University of North Florida and Florida A&M University, plan to hold some face-to-face classes on Saturdays or later in the day to accommodate students who want to learn in person.
Under the University of South Florida's four-phased plan, classes with over 100 students will be required to be held only online at first. Smaller classes will be able to be held in person, online, or as a hybrid of the two.
All fall semester classes and final exams at USF will be online only following the Thanksgiving holiday break.
Layouts of classrooms and laboratories will be changed to allow for recommend social distancing.
"We've done a lot of planning and analysis already on classroom and laboratory density," USF President Steven Currall told governors. "We are focusing on academic quality and access for success for our students and assessing their learning outcomes to make sure we're in compliance... And we're also committed to meeting student health needs including mental health outside the classroom."
USF is already in phase one of its plan.
Florida International University Provost Kenneth Furton told the board his school will only be able to offer one-third of its classes face-to-face because of the layout of some classrooms, some of which include fixed seating.
“If we were to modify the physical-distance requirements, we could accommodate more, but right now that is the biggest challenge,” Furton said, noting that most classes will be held online or using a hybrid model.
Universities also have put in place various plans to test students and faculty for the highly contagious coronavirus as they return to campus. The schools also will conduct screening of individuals who may have traveled to regions that are known hot spots for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
USF's plan requires all students, faculty, and staff to complete a baseline symptom survey before returning to campus. Anyone who reports symptoms will be referred for testing.
In addition, all students from outside Florida, as well as those from Florida counties with positivity rates of coronavirus over seven percent, will need to be tested within the two weeks before returning to campus.
USF will send a self-administered kit to people who cannot find free testing before returning to campus.
Once classes restart, a random sample of 10% of students, faculty, and staff will be tested on a weekly basis.
FSU will require all employees to be tested for the virus before returning to campus and will encourage students to undergo testing. At Florida Gulf Coast University, optional testing will be provided to all students and employees prior to their return to campus.
At the University of Florida, testing will be available to all students but it will be mandatory for all students who are symptomatic and for those who are in clinical settings on campus.
Screening protocols will be used by all universities, but the methods will vary.
For example, Florida A&M plans to install temperature kiosks at busy campus locations, such as libraries. The kiosks will signal an alert when an individual's temperature is above normal.
University of North Florida President David Szymanski said university students will be asked to conduct their own temperature checks and self-report their well-being to school officials prior to entering classrooms or buildings.
“It’s an evolving situation but right now it is going to be based on self-reporting,” Szymanski said.
But board member Eric Silagy urged Szymanski to reconsider and to use technology on campus to ensure that individuals actually are complying with the temperature checks.
“The issue you are going to face is that there are going to be students who are asymptomatic and they are going to feel fine and, if they are not really vigilant about taking their temperature, you are not going to have an early warning,” Silagy said.
Board member Charles Lydecker also asked Szymanski to ensure that students abide by social-distancing guidelines if they attend the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, where the university is located.
Lydecker worried that thousands of people from across the country will congregate at the convention in late August, around the time that students will be arriving on campus.
He said there is a “high likelihood that face masks won’t be worn” at the convention because President Donald Trump has not embraced them, despite health officials' recommendations that face coverings can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Lydecker asked Szymanski if the Jacksonville university would consider prohibiting students from attending the convention, to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.
“We can’t do that. This is still America,” Szymanski responded, adding that university officials will stress to students the value of social distancing and using facemasks.
Currall also told governors the fact that his school's three campuses are in urban areas will make their reopening that much more of a challenge.
"There'll be a lot of monitoring and thinking that we'll be doing about the permeability of our campus boundaries. So a lot of students and faculty colleagues and even vendors and other visitors coming onto our campus and then our students going off campus as well," he said.