Throughout this pandemic, students at the University of Florida have been my lifeline. I was fortunate to teach and advise them even over the summer, honing my Zoom skills and finding new ways to keep classes as interactive, intimate and open as they would have been in the classroom. My students have responded in kind — I cannot remember a time when they so yearned for knowledge and did as well in their assignments as over these past six months. The regularity of class meetings gives structure to our days and provides us with a space — virtual albeit — where we can study other worlds while sharing concerns about the one we live in.
Like most of my colleagues, I miss seeing students, their chatter in the hallways, our serendipitous encounters, meandering conversations during office hours. And I know that my students are suffering in the quarantine. A day ago, they selected an art work saying “I miss the future” as representative of their perspective on our present moment. But they are smart and conscientious and understand the meaning of sacrifice. Now, more than ever, they do not seem interested in faking normalcy as plans to reopen Florida universities in the spring would force all of us to do.
We gather from the Town Hall with UF Provost Joseph Glover and a video address by UF President Kent Fuchs that the university administration finds itself in an unenviable position. It is directed by unnamed state officials to open the university to more face-to-face teaching in the spring, thus exposing students, faculty and staff to health risks associated with the pandemic in order to maintain its state funding.
However, there are no such written orders from the Florida Board of Governors, the institution that governs Florida’s state university system. In other words, the university administration is being asked to present this directive, which amounts to political blackmail in a state pivotal to presidential elections, as a matter of its own choice, allegedly driven by student demand but without any survey data to support that claim.
Unable to ramp up COVID-19 testing by the spring or develop any detailed contingency planning for the pandemic on this short notice, yet still committed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the university is now scheduling many of its classes as HyFlex: a select few students in the classroom with the majority of students still Zooming in. The schedule would simulate classroom occupancy (one of the conditions for state funding) in buildings which may or may not have appropriate space or ventilation to minimize the spread of the airborne virus.
I think that university professors, like all other teachers, are essential workers and that our duties in times of crisis include shielding our students from harm while providing them with the best education possible. If I were convinced that teaching a small number of students in a classroom while others are still on Zoom is both safe and pedagogically superior to our virtual encounters, I would embrace it.
Instead, I worry about inequalities that could further harm my students — differences in access to professors and perceptions of associated privileges that such access enables; availability of study locations on our campus which would allow students to seamlessly move from real to virtual classrooms quickly between classes; relocation costs for those who had chosen to stay at home during the fall semester and were planning to do so in the spring also.
Mostly I worry about the lack of truth in advertising and the fact that none of the key constituencies in this endeavor — faculty, staff, students and their families — have ever been given a chance to participate in the decision that puts their lives at risk.
Faculty, staff and students at the University of Florida have been presented with this plan as a fait accompli, and Thursday was the deadline for spring scheduling. More than 3,000 of them have expressed opposition to the plan.
Students, however, will start registering only in mid-November. Conveniently, therefore, the reopening of the universities in Florida — just like the reopening of the sports stadiums which has quickly turned sour — can then be touted as a sign of victory over the virus before the election day. Students and their families may be hoodwinked into thinking that things are returning to normal, that life at the university will be as it was in the before time, without realizing that this is all a risky political stunt. For, in reality, we are hostages in a game to deliver Florida to one of the presidential candidates in the last stretch before Nov. 3.
Aida A.Hozic is an associate professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida.