Start the year with online classes, USF’s faculty union urges

In a letter to university officials, the United Faculty of Florida says the current course of COVID-19 makes in-person classes too dangerous.
As students prepare to return to campus, the USF chapter of United Faculty of Florida is calling on the university to reopen with online only classes for the fall semester.
As students prepare to return to campus, the USF chapter of United Faculty of Florida is calling on the university to reopen with online only classes for the fall semester. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Aug. 5, 2020|Updated Aug. 6, 2020

The University of South Florida’s faculty union, citing recent death counts from COVID-19, is urging school leaders to start the fall semester with only online classes.

The request echoes last week’s announcement by the union’s state affiliate, United Faculty of Florida, which called on Gov. Ron DeSantis and education commissioner Richard Corcoran to scrap the idea of in-person classes for now.

Arthur Shapiro, president of the union’s USF chapter, penned a letter pointing out high death rates in the state as recently as July 28, with elevated levels of cases in the zip code where the St. Petersburg campus is located. He also pointed to the number of confirmed cases in Hillsborough County and concerns about ventilation in buildings.

The letter was addressed to USF president Steve Currall and copied to board of trustees chairman Jordan Zimmerman.

“Faculty statewide have spoken out loudly and clearly that it is not safe to open our universities next month,” Shapiro wrote. “Statistics indicate that hundreds if not thousands of students, faculty, staff and administration may sicken and die should our campuses reopen. We strongly believe that the online learning model is the safest model in view of the extreme danger to the health of everyone on the campus should we move into face-to-face models.”

Currall responded to the letter Wednesday, thanking Shapiro for his commitment to health and safety but expressing confidence in the safety of the university’s existing plan.

“Our commitment to evidence-based decision-making remains at the core of our phased return to campus,” he wrote. “The analysis of today’s COVID-19 data — including test positivity rates and numbers of daily cases in each of our campus counties — indicates positive trends supporting a gradual return to campus in a controlled and careful way.”

The university’s path could change as data is updated, and it will work with those that have personal circumstances preventing them from returning, the letter said.

The university remains in the first phase of its four-phase re-opening plan, which was approved by the Board of Governors in late June. Students are slated to move in to residence halls starting Aug. 16, and the fall semester begins Aug. 24.

About 59 percent of courses are expected to have some in-person component. The university had hoped to be in the third phase by the start of the semester, but said in-person courses could begin as early as Phase II. Movement between phases of the plan is based on public health data.

Gregory McColm, secretary of USF’s union chapter, said the course he teaches would be online in the fall. But, speaking for himself and not the union, he predicted a reopening under the current plan would make the crisis worse.

“Reality is indifferent to our hopes and expectations and wishes,” he said. “It just is.”

Earlier this week, the executive director of the statewide faculty union issued a follow-up statement saying the state had not acknowledged its letter.

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“It is apparent to UFF that these concerns after four consecutive days of record deaths last week and surges nationwide and worldwide require attention,” Marshall Ogletree wrote. “To not take any action and ignore the pleas of the public is both callous and reckless.”

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Corcoran’s office said the state was confident in existing university and college re-opening plans. Taryn Fenske, communications director for the Florida Department of Education, said most universities and colleges have already been open in some capacity since late May or early June, and are prepared for a full reopening.

She said each school is taking a “dimmer switch” approach, enabling them to taper their plans to the course of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

Fenske added: “Florida’s state colleges and technical colleges are a major supplier of the talent pipeline for first responders, law enforcement and other professions that are critical to Florida’s overall recovery from this crisis, and their ability to provide health and safe in-person instruction is a must-have for our state’s continued progress.”