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Reopening Florida universities will take ‘shared responsibility,’ education leaders say

“The traditional campus experience for students will be different from past years," say new guidelines approved by the Board of Governors.
The Florida Board of Governors approved a set of guidelines Thursday as a first step toward a fall reopening of campuses, including the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida.
The Florida Board of Governors approved a set of guidelines Thursday as a first step toward a fall reopening of campuses, including the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published May 28, 2020|Updated May 29, 2020

Shared responsibility will be key as Florida reopens its public universities to about 500,000 students and faculty this fall, state education leaders said Thursday.

Students, faculty, staff and even vendors and visitors at the State University System’s 12 schools should expect to undergo health safety training, COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing as needed, according to guidelines approved by the system’s Board of Governors.

“The traditional campus experience for students will be different from past years," the guidelines read, promising that the college experience “will still be positive and rewarding." Board members have said they are committed to getting students back on track with academics, and eager to eventually offer some activities, too, if deemed safe.

The guidelines were developed by a task force organized earlier this month by board Chairman Sydney Kitson. The group, made up of university presidents, trustees and others working in health and emergency management, has met weekly.

Their work boiled down to a three-page document that will serve as a blueprint to leaders working to develop individual reopening plans at each university, which are due to the state June 12 and will be presented during a board meeting at the University of Central Florida on June 23.

The University of South Florida has already offered a partial look at how campuses will function in the fall, announcing Wednesday that in-person classes will start Aug. 24, but that the semester would end with online classes and exams after the Thanksgiving break. Other details on preventing the spread of the virus were to be announced in the coming weeks, a USF spokeswoman said.

Related: USF classes will return to campus in August, go back online after Thanksgiving break

The state guidelines call for universities to train students and employees on health safety protocols, like social-distancing, face coverings and hand-washing. All guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must be adopted as policy at each university, and the schools must share in their plans how compliance will be enforced on campus.

Universities should be prepared to regularly clean and disinfect all facilities, including classrooms, offices, dorms, food halls, laboratories and public spaces, according to the guidelines. Plans should consider how and when extracurricular activities, like clubs and intramural sports, might eventually resume.

“We always are talking first and foremost about safety, and a lot of our focus is on academics,” said Marshall Criser, chancellor of the State University System. “But we also hope that we will be able to develop the experience that our students have treasured about our universities.”

The biggest challenges will come from lack of collaboration, he said, adding that the more everyone works together to keep campuses safe, the sooner university operations could expand and get closer to normal.

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Board member Charlie Lydecker said he expects all on campus to get behind new policies and procedures. Anyone who feels ill should inform university and health officials immediately, and each university should have a plan for testing, according to the guidelines.

Schools should specify who should be tested, when and how often. Students and employees should be screened or surveyed to identify those who need testing most, as well as who has traveled and where. Officials should be able to quickly identify “hot spots” on campus, the guidelines said. All universities should set a “campus threshold," or number of infections, that would trigger restrictions on campus.

Although contact-tracing is conducted by the state Department of Health, universities are expected to help the agency reach others who have come into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. If a student living on campus contracts the virus, the university must help them find temporary housing to isolate until they test negative, as well as provide counseling and other support services to those in need, the guidelines said.

University leaders are instructed to collaborate with government officials and business owners in their cities and counties. They are also encouraged to continue finding new ways to deliver instruction, in person, online and “hybrid combinations” of both, the guidelines said. “Reasonable alternatives” should be found for students and faculty who are unable to attend class in person.

“We are hoping that we can tailor our academic delivery in such a way that we’re meeting the students where the student wants to be met," Criser said.

Multiple faculty members from across the state called in to the board meeting Thursday, pleading that professors be included in conversations about reopening. There are about 74,000 faculty members within the State University System, Criser said.

Marshall Ogletree, executive director of United Faculty of Florida, called the guidelines a “good template,” but said the task force never considered faculty voices. The union has its own task force and recommendations for reopening, which will be forwarded to Criser next week to help put “meat on the bones" of the state guidelines, he said.

“Just as when building a house, no matter how fast you have to build it, you don’t build it first and then call in the electrician and plumber,” said Carolynne Gischel, an assistant professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“Faculty are front line workers on some level and need to be taken into account,” added Robin Goodman, an English professor at Florida State University.

Board member Kent Sternman said state leaders owe faculty a response to their concerns, and Kitson said he will talk to the task force about the feedback. In the meantime, Criser said, everyone involved in the state university landscape should prepare themselves to be flexible and agile as the pandemic ebbs and flows.

“What we know about COVID-19 to date is that things change,” he said. “What we know going forward about COVID-19 is that things are likely to change.”

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