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UF faculty, graduate unions call for stronger COVID protocols this fall

In a statement, they say Gov. Ron DeSantis’s opposition to mask and vaccine requirements is a “life-threatening error.”
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where faculty and graduate students called on school leaders Tuesday to adopt stronger COVID-19 protocols when classes begin later this month.
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where faculty and graduate students called on school leaders Tuesday to adopt stronger COVID-19 protocols when classes begin later this month. [ University of Florida ]
Published Aug. 4

Citing the recent rise in Florida coronavirus cases and moves by private companies like Google and Publix to improve safety, the University of Florida’s faculty and graduate student unions called on the school Tuesday to better protect its campus this fall with ramped up protocols.

“The University of Florida faces a real emergency,” the unions said in a statement. “We simply cannot ignore the recent precipitous rise in COVID infections, pretending that plans that may have seemed reasonable even a few weeks ago are still up to today’s challenge.”

The statement, sent to UF president Kent Fuchs, called on the university to “strongly, publicly, and repeatedly” encourage vaccines, stating emails weren’t enough. It also asked the school to require weekly testing for unvaccinated individuals, require masks indoors, offer remote and hybrid course options for faculty and students and publicly disclose data — including how vaccination rates are determined.

In April, UF Health estimated that as many as 80 percent of students and 90 percent of faculty were vaccinated based on informal surveys.

“The University must act quickly to continually adapt to these changing — and accelerating —dynamics, and seriously reconsider current Fall 2021 re-opening plans and protocols,” the statement said. “Despite legal precedents dating back to 1905, when the U.S. government mandated universal vaccination against yellow fever, Governor DeSantis has decided that COVID vaccination and even mandatory mask-wearing is an unacceptable infringement on personal freedom in state institutions. We believe that is a serious, life-threatening error, and are appalled at his decision.”

The university’s fall semester starts Aug. 23.

In May, UF announced it planned to resume pre-pandemic level activities in the fall. At the end of July, provost Joe Glover sent a message to the university community encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“Fully immunized adults need not wear masks, are unlikely to contract or transmit the virus, and are even less likely to suffer serious illness,” Glover wrote. “Almost 100 percent of the people who study and work at UF — students, faculty, and staff — are adults and can therefore be vaccinated.”

His message continued: “If someone chooses not to be vaccinated, that person is assuming a significant risk of contracting COVID-19. UF cannot be responsible for that risk, given the ready availability of vaccine, and cannot modify the operation of the entire university for a minority of people who may choose not to be vaccinated.”

In the July 23 update, he wrote that the university has always offered a mix of online and in-person courses, but they would no longer need to ensure there was an online option for everything. He also said the university would continue to monitor the situation and be ready to change its approach if needed.

The next message was sent on July 27, when all State University System presidents signed off on a letter encouraging students to get vaccinated.

Paul Ortiz, president of the UF faculty union, said in an interview Tuesday that he was encouraged that the university adjusted its protocols for its summer commencement to minimize interaction due to changing circumstances. But he said Tuesday’s statement is intended to provide university administrators with additional support to take a more aggressive stance in light of pressures from the state.

”We understand that our state institutions are under pressure to pretend that we’ve gotten through the global pandemic,” Ortiz said. “But we also know that children in our community are dying. We know that hospital beds are filling up at alarming rates. We know that unvaccinated people are dying.”