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COVID safety encouraged, not required as Tampa Bay college campuses reopen

Schools aim for a more normal environment despite the omicron variant’s spread.
Students gather Monday at USF's Marshall Student Center, where signs remind them to mask up and get vaccinated. It was the first day of the spring semester.
Students gather Monday at USF's Marshall Student Center, where signs remind them to mask up and get vaccinated. It was the first day of the spring semester. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Jan. 10
Updated Jan. 10

As the spring semester begins this week amid another spike in COVID-19 cases, Tampa Bay area colleges and universities are mostly sticking with in-person classes and leaving safety measures up to individuals.

The debate over protocols has been evolving throughout the academic year as cases rose, then fell and are rising again.

When the fall semester began, the University of South Florida resolved to resume a normal college experience for students. In-person classes, club meetings and other gatherings were back to 2019 levels.

Then the COVID-19 delta variant hit. And despite faculty concerns over why they didn’t have the autonomy to start their courses online or require masks, the first semester rolled ahead as planned.

As case numbers declined, plans emerged for an even more comprehensive return to normal. On Dec. 14, Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Health, sent an email to the USF community saying the university “will behave toward COVID-19 the way we behave toward all other infectious diseases.”

The university would end its work with the Department of Health and there would be “no need to report cases, exposures, nor symptoms to the University,” the message said.

Then, the omicron variant hit.

During the last week of December, the outgoing state Board of Governors chairman wrote a letter encouraging masks and vaccinations and promising that students would continue to “receive the high-quality education they both expect and deserve.”

Last week, interim USF president Rhea Law publicly encouraged vaccines, boosters and told people to stay home if they were ill. Faculty members were asked to be flexible if students are unable to attend classes in person and are allowed to seek exemptions from teaching in-person due to personal or family health concerns.

“As always, USF prioritizes the health and safety of our community as we continue to navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Law wrote.

But in an open letter to Law the day before, USF’s faculty union president Art Shapiro wrote to “urge a more aggressive approach.”

“We recognize that USF has been under intense external pressure to treat the pandemic lightly, but our primary concern is the health and safety of the USF community,” he wrote.

He recommended that USF join Columbia, Harvard, Yale and other universities in holding the first few weeks of classes online. He also called for vaccine and mask mandates.

In an interview, Shapiro said he didn’t think the administration could do much more.

“What’s behind it is that the governor is essentially banning masks and the boards of trustees and Board of Governors are simply not going to challenge him,” he said.

Tim Boaz, president of USF’s Faculty Senate and a board of trustees member, said most faculty would like additional protection but recognize it will likely not happen.

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“Even though (the omicron variant) appears to be less virulent, we still have people dying,” Boaz said. “I think people still rightly see this as a dangerous situation.”

Boaz said he’s less worried about himself than he is about community spread and more vulnerable people. Students, he said, have been opting for virtual options. In one course that typically has more than 50 students enrolled, he said, most opted for the online version and the in-person section was canceled.

Boaz said, given that the university requires other vaccinations, he doesn’t think a COVID vaccine requirement would be unreasonable, but understands the state restrictions.

On Monday, USF’s Marshall Student Center was buzzing with masked and unmasked students. Signs reminding people to vaccinate and mask up remained, but the stations used to offer masks and sanitizer were gone.

Lucas Prestianni, a senior in his final semester at USF, said he was happy to see students back in full swing again, but he worried about the omicron variant.

“Not everyone is taking the pandemic seriously still,” he said, including some professors.

Ariana Venditti, a junior, said a college career “goes quick,” so she was happy to be fully in-person Monday for the first time since she started at USF. Her first two years were totally online.

In contrast, the private University of Tampa has encouraged students and faculty to upload their vaccination cards so the university can get a better gauge of how much of their population is vaccinated and comply with federal workplace mandates. The school also is requiring “all UT community members and their guests to wear face masks while indoors on campus, regardless of vaccination status,” according to a message sent to the UT community.

At St. Petersburg College, officials say masks are not required, but “expected.” A mix of in-person and online courses are being offered, said Rita Farlow, executive director of marketing and strategic communications.

“We know this is a difficult and confusing time, so we’re reminding students, faculty and staff to put their health — physical, mental and emotional — at the forefront,” she wrote in a statement.

At Hillsborough Community College, dean of health sciences Leif Penrose, who has coordinated the school’s COVID response, said the primary concern was keeping sick people off the campuses.

“Anyone who is not feeling well should not come to our campus,” he said. “We would rather have people stay home and do things remotely than be on campus and spread things, whether it’s flu, or omicron, or delta or any of the infectious things going around.”

While public colleges and universities have had to adapt due to changing federal and state guidelines, Penrose said it’s important to understand how the virus spreads so people want to take preventative measures, from mask-wearing to social distancing.

“If we can keep stuff from one person’s mucus membrane out of another person’s mucus membrane, we can keep the transmission rate down,” he said. “We’re all sick of this. We just got to make sure we don’t let our guard down.”