MIAMI — Nearly a year after Florida International University shuttered its campuses and ordered most of its more than 10,000 employees to work remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Miami-based public university is ready to “take back (its) space” FIU President Mark Rosenberg told faculty and staff last week after sending an email that strongly suggested they return to the campus.
The missive comes at a time when Florida is leading the nation in cases of the more contagious B.1.1.7 strain of the virus, Miami-Dade’s confirmed case count is topping more than 1,000 new cases a day and the county is lagging behind the state and other large counties in getting seniors vaccinated.
Rosenberg sent the email last Monday to faculty and staff asking them to “increase (their) physical presence on campus effective Monday, February 15,” describing the mission as a “noble task” and telling them the success of the students and the university “depend upon it.”
“We are at the point where we have good science about how COVID-19 can be prevented and at FIU we have taken every step and precaution to make sure that (the) university offers a healthy environment,” he told the Herald in an emailed statement Friday.
Some of the safety protocols the university has adopted include recommending frequent testing and hand washing, double facial coverings and social distancing. The school installed plexiglass barriers and new air filters. It acquired K9s to go through public spaces for quality control for cleaning.
The university also created an app called P3, Panthers Protecting Panthers, and asks visitors to fill out a survey about symptoms before coming to campus. The school has received some vaccine doses from the state, but hopes to get more soon and keep vaccinating on site.
FIU has two campuses, its main campus at 11200 SW Eighth St. and its Biscayne Bay campus off Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 151st Street.
Dr. Eneida Roldan, the CEO of the FIU HealthCare Network, said in an email the positivity rate has decreased in Miami-Dade to “considerably below 10%.”
Statewide cases have been declining from a peak in early January. On Sunday, the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 5,436 new cases and 96 deaths, the lowest number in each category this calendar year. The state’s positive test rate, 6.97 percent on Saturday, averaged 6.64 percent over the last week, down from 7.51 percent for the previous seven days.
In Miami-Dade, the positive test rate on Saturday was 7.33 percent. For the week, the county’s average daily positive test rate fell from 7.45 percent from Jan. 31 through Feb. 6 to 6.73 percent for Feb. 7 through Saturday, according to state records.
According to FIU’s COVID dashboard that tracks self-reported cases, 670 students, and 350 faculty and staff have disclosed they got infected since March 12.
Roldan also said “the incidence of B.1.1.7 is relatively low in our area.” As of Thursday, Florida had 379 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the “UK variant,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most cases of any state in the country. The CDC does not break out the data by county.
The university administration held a town hall to answer any questions about Rosenberg’s email last Wednesday. During the virtual event, Roldan told the approximately 1,300 employees who attended she has been going to campus and feels safer there than at Publix.
“Unless anyone is not going out at all and not interacting with anyone ... you will be exposed,” she said.
El pagnier Kay Hudson, FIU’s senior vice president for human resources, said in an email to the Herald the move is part of the university’s three-phase repopulation plan. During Phase I in the fall, FIU implemented rotation schedules on Oct. 5 to allow employees to come to campus at least once per week. Now it’s transitioning to Phase II, and the purpose has become “to increase on-campus presence,” she said.
Out of the 10,294 people FIU employs, 3,798 are staff, 1,826 are faculty and 4,670 are temporary employees (including student assistants), according to Hudson. During the fall semester, about 68 percent of all faculty and staff participated in rotation schedules, which allowed them to be on campus at least once every week or two weeks.
Starting Monday, FIU wants to expand that percentage to 100 percent, asking faculty and staff members to return to either a daily rotation or a weekly one.
During the town hall Wednesday, Carlos-Antonio Flores, executive director of operations and systems at FIU, said the university expects that employees who work in cubicles in open-space settings can return to campus three days a week. People who have individual offices can start working from campus five days a week, he noted.
“We are saying at minimum everyone who is able to physically distance should be on this campus three days of the week,” Flores said.
However, with a caveat: Hudson said they “understand that some of [the] workforce would not be able to” due to medical conditions or caring for others who are at great risk for contracting COVID-19, as well as for other reasons such as caring for children.
“We do ask managers to continue to afford flexibility,” Flores said.
Students won’t be affected because none of the classes will shift mid-spring semester, Hudson said, but they are welcome to come to campus for meetings or other activities.
Professors won’t be affected either, said Martha Meyers, the president of the local chapter of United Faculty of Florida, the union that represents more than 20,000 instructors across the state, including about 1,370 at FIU.
“For faculty it is not mandatory,” Meyers said.
“What’s being asked of faculty is for there to be a greater presence [on campus]. Should faculty choose to do so, we fully support. Should faculty want to go sit into their offices and do work, we fully support,” she added. “We do have an agreement though that says they can’t be forced to do so.”
The union and FIU signed a memo of understanding that allowed all faculty who could prove to HR they are personally vulnerable to the coronavirus or care for someone who is vulnerable to the disease to fill out an attestation form by Dec. 17.
Meyers said about 40 percent, or 500 to 600 members of the bargaining unit, attested. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to campus; it means they can’t be compelled to do so, she noted.
Faculty are “very happy that they are being protected,” she said.
That’s not the case with administrative staff.
“There’s an overall concern among the staff and administrators, and it doesn’t seem to be getting across” to the university, said an administrative staffer who asked the Herald to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
The staffer has been involved in a two days per week on-campus rotation up until last week, and said the one-week notice to increase that to five days per week seems “very rushed.”
“It is a very dramatic change that they decided to quickly lay out ... and with no explanation as to why we’re going so fast. Why are we being forced to return?” the staffer said. “They keep saying it’s safe but you’re expected to touch the same handle that everyone touches, go to the same bathroom that everyone goes to. There’s no protection.”
The staffer said “it’s still thousands of people on campus” and some won’t follow the rules.
The CDC updated its guidance for K-12 public schools on Friday, encouraging them to resume in-person learning. In its report, the CDC advised that with the proper safety protocols, schools can reopen. That won’t change anything for Miami-Dade and Broward schools, according to the public school systems.
Friday’s CDC directive didn’t touch on higher education, but Dean Colson, chair of the FIU Board of Trustees, told the Herald in an emailed statement he believes it’s still relevant for FIU.
“There’s no reason why that logic wouldn’t also apply in a university setting,” he wrote.
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