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Florida university campuses to reopen in the fall, state leaders say

A task force for the State University System’s Board of Governors will make recommendations May 28.

Florida’s public university campuses will reopen in the fall, state higher education leaders announced Monday, but details won’t be known until later.

Some specifics will be discussed May 28 at the State University System’s Board of Governors meeting, where a task force will present guidelines for reopening. Representatives from each of the 12 schools in the system will share individual plans about a month later, on June 23.

State university campuses have been largely closed since mid-March when the Board of Governors directed schools to move to online classes as the coronavirus began to spread.

Recommendations by the task force will be “informed by science and medical professionals," board chairman Syd Kitson said in a news release. The group is prioritizing safety while getting students back on track for the state’s student success goals, he added.

In a message to students earlier this month, University of South Florida president Steve Currall said he always intended to return to face-to-face instruction in the fall. But various precautions will be put in place, like requiring face coverings, limiting capacity in common areas and increasing testing and contact-tracing among students, faculty and staff.

"When we begin to take these steps, there will be modifications and precautions in place to support a healthy environment,” Currall said in a follow-up statement Monday. "We are working diligently to fully develop our plans for the fall and we look forward to updating our community very soon.”

Student reaction to Monday’s announcement was mixed. Some celebrated the promised return to normalcy, while others wondered whether normal is really possible.

Christopher Zoeller, an 18-year-old from Hudson, is set to start at the University of Central Florida in the fall. [Courtesy of Christopher Zoeller]

Christopher Zoeller, an 18-year-old from Hudson, is set to start at the University of Central Florida in the fall. He had been eagerly awaiting news about whether his freshman year would begin in person or online, as high school will finish.

“It’s definitely happy news,” he said. “But it does worry me that it’s going to be a little bit too soon.”

It’s hard for Zoeller, who plans to study political science, to imagine social distancing on a campus that enrolls more about 70,000 students. He said UCF should limit housing and class capacities, as well as require masks and increased sanitation practices.

Related: Keep up with Florida education news on the Times Gradebook

Mehdi Rizk, a 19-year-old health science major at the University of Florida, had a similar reaction. He said he would consider returning to classrooms if the school adopts standards such as reduced capacities and sanitizing between each period. “Otherwise, I don’t think so,” he said.

Online instruction hasn’t met his expectations and it’s hard to get motivated from his parents’ home in Hillsborough County. But he doesn’t want schools reopening to send the wrong message — or bring about unnecessary risks.

“It’s going to set this mentality through Gainesville that everything is okay,” Rizk said. “It could be a kind of blowup of infection rates."

Will Turner, 20, is a mass communications senior at the University of South Florida in Tampa. [Courtesy of Will Turner]

Will Turner, 20, is a mass communications senior at the University of South Florida in Tampa. This fall is his last semester before graduation. And, though he’s grateful he’ll get to spend it on campus, he worries about a spike in coronavirus cases, too.

“I’m still kind of scared there will be a second wave of this virus that will just kind of cripple everything again,” he said.

Turner noted that most college students are in the age group of people who health officials say can contract the virus but be asymptomatic. That could be dangerous on campus, where “nobody knows who has the virus and who doesn’t."

USF should make face covering mandatory and employ other safety practices, like social distancing and limited capacity inside buildings, Turner said. The Marshall Student Center and libraries should remain closed, and all students should have their temperatures checked before walking into class.

“It will be really nice to get back to normal,” Turner said. “But at the same time, how normal can we really get after this?”

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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