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At University of Florida, a rise in face-to-face classes prompts pushback

The in-person college experience is back by popular demand. But faculty, local residents and some students are sounding alarms.
GNV Unite, a group formed by Gainesville resident Danielle Hawk, put up a display of tombstone art outside the University of Florida campus Wednesday to protest the school's decision to offer more in-person classes this semester.
GNV Unite, a group formed by Gainesville resident Danielle Hawk, put up a display of tombstone art outside the University of Florida campus Wednesday to protest the school's decision to offer more in-person classes this semester. [ Courtesy of Danielle Hawk ]
Published Feb. 6

When the University of Florida announced plans last fall to reopen this semester with a “hy-flex” model, many balked.

It meant that the spring 2021 course schedule would have roughly as many in-person classes as it did last spring, before the pandemic.

The faculty and graduate student unions held news conferences calling on the university to allow for more options for faculty members, particularly older ones. They protested outside the home of UF president Kent Fuchs.

But the university continued with its plans, even as case numbers began to climb again. A UF news release quoted a sophomore saying Zoom fatigue was real and she was excited to return to campus.

Spokesman Steve Orlando said the university made the decision after consulting with leading health experts on how to reopen safely. They ramped up testing, supplied N95 masks to those teaching in person and created a daily classroom regimen.

This semester, upwards of 25,000 students — more than 43 percent of undergraduates — have enrolled for courses with some in-person component.

“There was a very strong desire for that from students and families,” Orlando said.

But as the pandemic continues and variant strains of COVID-19 spread across the state, students, faculty and Gainesville residents have become more vocal, calling on the university to acknowledge their concerns and increase social distancing.

On Wednesday, a display of tombstone signs popped up on the outskirts of the main campus. They bore messages like “Here lie UF employees … forced to teach in person” and “You’re killing us Uni. of Florida.” The faculty and graduate unions held a news conference presenting a list of demands.

Gainesville resident Danielle Hawk, 26, called on UF to respond, arguing that school leaders need to realize the city is more than just the university. She created an online petition that received more than 1,200 signatures. And her sentiments were echoed by Gainesville City Commissioner Reina Saco.

Reopening the university in person has led to an influx of students who frequent bars, restaurants and clubs, and are often seen mask-less on social media, Hawk said.

“They are not residents, they are not taxpayers, they are not voters,” she said. “They have no skin in the game.”

Hawk said she lost her job and health insurance during the pandemic. Her husband is a teaching assistant at UF and her sister is a nurse at North Florida Regional Medical Center who has seen the direct impact of COVID-19.

“I think it’s equal parts terrifying and frustrating,” she said. “The university does a really great job of leveraging the outlets and platforms they have to paint a picture that’s not reality.”

At the speak-out event Wednesday, faculty and graduate assistants urged the university to end its use of what they called a “snitching” app, known officially as Gator Safe. UF began using it in the fall as a way for students to flag problems. In addition to issues like mask-less peers, students could report professors who converted face-to-face classes to online.

Orlando said the app was deployed instead of a hotline or other system because apps are what students use most often. So far, he said, the university has received 13 complaints, none which have been about professors not showing up in-person.

The unions said the safety app shouldn’t be used for that purpose, and that such matters should be dealt with using the grievance process.

National Education Association president Becky Pringle, who attended the speak-out to lend her support to the faculty and graduate unions, said students should not be pitted against faculty.

“Our students deserve better than this hodgepodge, chaotic approach,” she said.

The unions also asked for immediate vaccination to allow faculty to have more options in how their courses are conducted, and to offer more accommodations for teaching remotely.

According to the UF website, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the university to allow for exemptions from in-person teaching based on medical conditions that put them at “increased risk.” Those include cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down syndrome, serious heart conditions, a weakened immune system from an organ transplant, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease and Type 2 diabetes.

At the speak-out, organizers read a letter from a doctoral student with Type I diabetes who said he was denied accommodations without explanation. A 61-year-old faculty member wrote they were obese and had other pre-existing conditions but were denied accommodations. Another with cancer said he never heard back from the university.

Age alone, or living with someone with increased risk, does not qualify as a disability — something faculty members said they would like the university to consider changing.

Orlando said he could not speak in detail about the reasons accommodations may be denied. He cited an ongoing grievance over the university’s adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act. But he added that several requests involving the law had been met.

“We’re not conspiracy theorists, but we have to wonder: What is the motivation of unconcerned or, frankly, very strange behavior by the administration?” Meera Sitharam, vice president of the faculty union, said. “Is the overall economic cost of people being sick in town compensated by people being in town and spending on restaurants and bars and rent?”

Faculty union president Paul Ortiz said members hope to work with the university, not against it.

Hawk, the Gainesville resident, said she plans to keep speaking out until the university takes action.

“The root of the issue is that UF was given a choice,” she said. “And they chose to make money and put their employees at risk.”