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What will be the new normal for Florida’s universities? | Editorial

The state should issue general public health guidelines, and each campus should add specifics.

Florida’s clarity on its ambition to reopen public universities this fall is helpful to anxious parents, students and faculty members. Not yet clear is what life will be like on campuses from Tallahassee to Gainesville to Tampa, except it is certain to be significantly different than when schools abruptly shut down in March. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, public health still will have to take priority over class routines and social traditions that have defined university life for decades.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 public universities, plans to issue general reopening guidelines Thursday. Each university will submit its specific plan to the board by June 23. There should be provisions for public comment, and the time line should give students adequate space to decide whether they are comfortable with the guidelines and plan to show up on campus in August. The key to success initially will be assuring students and faculty that the guidelines provide adequate safeguards to limit the spread of the virus while still preserving important aspects of the college experience.

Meeting that high bar won’t be easy. The sprawling California state university system already has given up and canceled in-person classes on its 23 campuses for this fall. New York University, smack in the nation’s biggest hot spot for the virus, intends to try to bring students back to campus with plans that include vigorous testing and supplying masks for everyone. Others schools, such as Notre Dame, are tinkering with a condensed fall semester that starts earlier and ends at Thanksgiving to avoid traveling back to campus and finishing by Christmas.

In Florida, the Board of Governors this week should provide broad guidelines that every state university should follow. There should be mandatory testing of everyone as they return to campus, and masks should be readily available for all. Each university should have plans for isolating students and faculty who test positive for COVID-19. And there should be general social distancing requirements that follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beyond general guidelines, universities need the flexibility to tailor their approaches to their campuses and their student populations. The dormitory set-ups, the mix of undergraduates to graduate students and normal class sizes vary. So does access to medical resources, depending upon whether the university has a school of medicine and a nearby major research hospital, such as the University of Florida and the University of South Florida. The details that will make this grand experiment work will be different, depending upon the circumstances and the characteristics of each campus.

How will campuses avoid large lecture classes that are so common in the students’ early academic career by adding virtual classes? Are there ways to hold small classes in dorms to limit interaction with other students? How can they add lab classes and other research opportunities to comply with social distancing? How will they deal with dorm suites?

The even bigger challenge in college towns will be encouraging responsible behavior outside the classroom. How will administrators manage traditional social activities, from student government to fraternities and sororities? Will student unions and other gathering spots be open? Assuming football games are played, is it really going to be fine for thousands of students to be in stadiums as though the pandemic is over?

The state’s intention to reopen universities is encouraging, and it speaks to a commitment to higher education and a willingness to innovate. It’s important for students to resume their academic work, for faculty to resume their teaching and research, and for universities to maintain their vital roles. There is also the economic reality: The universities need to be open to survive economically. The University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, two of the largest public universities in the nation, already are reportedly on their way to losing more than $40 million each in revenue.

Like everywhere else, life on university campuses will be different. It’s important to make the effort to open them this fall -- and to ensure there are adequate public health protections to limit the spread of the coronavirus. To pull this off will require innovation, dedication and patience from everyone.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news