Faculty unions call on Florida universities to go online-only this fall

Leaders say plans to reopen campuses were hastily completed and will put students and faculty in danger of infection.
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where some faculty members say that it's dangerous to reopen campuses given the state's rate of infection for the coronavirus.
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where some faculty members say that it's dangerous to reopen campuses given the state's rate of infection for the coronavirus. [ University of Florida ]
Published July 27, 2020|Updated July 31, 2020

The union representing faculty at Florida’s public universities and colleges warned Monday that plans to reopen campuses this fall could create coronavirus “superspreader sites.”

Each university and college has been responsible for developing its own reopening plan, and individual plans were approved by system leaders. Florida’s 12 state universities opted for a hybrid reopening, with some classes in person, some online and some as a combination.

Related: Here’s how Florida’s large universities are planning to reopen

At the University of South Florida, 59 percent of classes will have some in-person component, according to a schedule released Friday.

But most of the state’s college and university reopening plans “were made in haste” and almost 60 percent have not been revised since July 1, said United Faculty of Florida president Karen Morian.

A professor at Florida State College in Jacksonville, Morian outlined the union’s case at a virtual news conference and in a letter sent from the union to Gov. Ron DeSantis and education commissioner Richard Corcoran.

The letter urged DeSantis to direct that college campuses reopen this fall with online-only classes “until public health conditions improve and we can assure students, parents, and members of the higher education community that academic excellence can safely continue on our campuses.”

The letter said many Florida schools did not have plans in place for several scenarios, raising questions. Among them: What happens to students who share an in-person class with someone who becomes infected? What happens to courses if an instructor is infected? And how are universities preparing for potential lawsuits?

The union also said many of the schools had “inadequate” plans for using contact tracing to follow the virus’ spread.

Following requests for comment to their offices, DeSantis and Corcoran did not immediately respond Monday.

Union vice president Jaffar Ali Shahul Hameed said he expected to see coronavirus-related deaths at Florida schools, given the current rate of infection. ”Opening colleges and universities can only make things worse,” said Hameed, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. “It’s a step in the wrong direction.”

Florida Education Association vice president Andrew Spar, who was also at the news conference, said he was concerned about the higher number of young people getting sick in recent spikes. Schools have a moral obligation to keep their students and older faculty and staff safe, he said.

The association represents about 145,000 educators, including K-12 teachers and college faculty.

“College is not just about the academics, though that is the main reason,” Spar said. “It’s also about college life. When you’re an 18- or 19-year-old, you want to experience college life, and very often that means gatherings.”

Marcus Milani, a University of Florida undergraduate student, said the current plans to reopen were “dangerous” and “deadly” in a town like Gainesville, where, he said, workers would be forced to come into contact with thousands.

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Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida professor, said the state is asking faculty to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. Most university reopening plans included guidelines that allowed for faculty at high risk of contracting the virus to seek reasonable accommodation to teach remotely, though age alone was not considered a factor by some schools.

A recent survey of 193 UF faculty by the United Faculty of Florida’s Gainesville chapter found 71 percent of 193 respondents felt fall was too early to reopen, the union said Monday.

Deandre Poole, a United Faculty of Florida representative from Florida Atlantic University, called planned reopenings a “game of Russian roulette.”

Matthew Eckel, a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida, said graduate assistants are in a particularly financially precarious situation that should be addressed. “Basic health care is often wholly inadequate if it’s available to us at all,” he said.

Eckel is a USF representative of Graduate Assistant United, a union that has held two recent protests pressing the university for better health care coverage.

Under USF’s plan, each instructor will be required to develop a contingency plan in the event the university is forced to shift to online-only classes before Thanksgiving.

Outbreaks of the virus are inevitable and suddenly closing universities would be disruptive and disorganized, said Morian, the union president.

“We want to reopen our campuses,” she said. “But, more importantly, we want them to stay open long term.”