Florida universities need more power to protect against COVID, faculty say

As the delta variant spreads, the state is limiting the range of safety measures schools can take.
One of many signs at the University of Florida reminding students that masks are "expected" in public areas. A statewide faculty advisory council is urging the state to give universities the power to set stronger restrictions if they want.
One of many signs at the University of Florida reminding students that masks are "expected" in public areas. A statewide faculty advisory council is urging the state to give universities the power to set stronger restrictions if they want. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Aug. 20, 2021

With the fall semester about to start, faculty members from Florida’s 12 state universities are calling on school leaders to take stronger action against the spread of COVID-19.

An advisory council of faculty from across the State University System passed a resolution this week urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to allow schools to set their own COVID-19 protocols. Universities have been constrained by state legislation and a DeSantis executive order that limit the steps they can take to stem the virus on campus

“The resolution is a clear statement that it would be better if we could have more local control,” said William Self, a University of Central Florida professor who chairs the advisory council and is a member of the state Board of Governors.

“It’s not a resolution that says we need to all wear masks; it’s a resolution that says we feel restricted by the current legislation,” he said. “Generally, public health decisions are made at the local level of what’s happening on the ground.”

Faculty members are aiming similar initiatives at school administrators, including at the University of South Florida, where more than 170 faculty signed a letter this week urging stronger protections against COVID-19. The USF faculty senate passed a resolution expressing similar sentiments. And faculty at the University of Florida are planning a rally to ask for stronger measures regarding masks, vaccines and social distancing if they must hold classes face-to-face.

Erin Ryan, a professor at Florida State University, said faculty feel vulnerable without the ability to enforce federal health guidelines in their classrooms.

“Normally this is a time of year where we are excited to get back into the classroom,” she said. “But now that the delta surge is so formidable, especially in Florida, people have really mixed feelings.”

At USF, where interim president Rhea Law took over two weeks ago, communications were sent out last week stating the university “expected” masks and “strongly encouraged” students to be vaccinated.

The university also held a town hall meeting and sent out a document stating what faculty can and can’t do after the semester starts. It says, for example, that they can wear masks but can’t require others to do the same. They can “take regular fresh air breaks.” But they can’t “frontload” online classes to the beginning of the semester using a technicality that allows in-person classes to have a portion of their classes online.

Related: USF ‘expecting’ but not requiring masks and vaccines in the fall

Richard Manning, a USF philosophy professor, said he understood the pressures that could threaten the university financially if it doesn’t comply with state directives. But he called the school’s current strategy on pandemic protocols “a piece of cowardice” on the part of university leaders.

“I’m sorry, but you don’t play with people’s safety and lives,” Manning said. “I think it’s fantastically irresponsible, given the extraordinary virulence of the delta variant.”

Jenifer Schneider, vice president of the USF faculty senate, said she found the university’s guidance offensive but, like Manning, understood the political pressures at work.

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“I’m quite sure if we could make decisions without executive orders and things we would be in a very different situation,” Schneider said. “I don’t blame USF administrators. They’re going to follow the requirements that have been set forth. But I think those are all wrong-minded and don’t follow science.... Our hands are tied.”

But other faculty members argued the university is morally obligated to push past the state barriers.

Brook Sadler, a USF professor of humanities and cultural studies, penned the letter with more than 170 signatures after hearing concerns from colleagues preparing to return to classrooms.

Some have children at home who are too young to be vaccinated and others live with elderly or immunocompromised individuals, she said. Some of the classes they teach are in poorly ventilated buildings with thousands passing through each day, she said.

“I think we need leadership to defy that roadblock or push back publicly against it,” Sadler said. “People say their hands are tied all the time, but it takes a little moral courage and leadership to untie them.”

Sadler said it was frustrating to see the university make decisions that fly in the face of best practices espoused by some of its own experts.

“It’s clear that there is government opposition, specifically Republican at the state level,” she said. “But I think it’s equally clear that any institute of higher learning is facing a choice between conceding to a political edict or defending the very disciplines they purport to teach. USF has a College of Medicine. USF has a College of Public Health.”

At an emergency faculty senate meeting Wednesday, members discussed a resolution urging steps that many faculty believe to be best practices: requirements for masks and vaccines and the ability to make classes remote until positivity rates drop. USF provost Ralph Wilcox said it was important for the university to offer in-person courses for students who have already arrived with that expectation.

He said that faculty across the State University System would be allowed to offer online classes for students who are unable to attend after testing positive for COVID-19 or having to quarantine. He said students may also take their courses online for any “compelling reason” that will be left to the instructors’ discretion. However, instructors must appear in person unless they fall ill or have to quarantine.

The resolution expressing a desire for stronger protections passed by a vote of 53-5, with some faculty expressing concerns about the bind it might create for administrators. Authors of the resolution clarified it was not asking the school to break the law, but rather express what they wished to see.

Steven Stark, a senator who did not vote on the measure, said he felt universities would not be able to operate without revenue, and if students wanted an in-person experience faculty should provide it.

Before the meeting, faculty senate president Tim Boaz said in an interview that he understands the sentiment that students want a return to normal, but that USF’s plans for the fall semester were set in spring — before models incorporated the delta variant.

The plans that public health experts set last year — and were approved by the state Board of Governors — would call for the university to step back right now. But they have been tossed aside, Boaz said.

“The data are pretty clear,” he said. “This is a dangerous situation.”