TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s largest faculty union Monday called on Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials to order higher-education institutions to use remote learning through the fall.
The push to keep university and college campuses closed during the fall semester, amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, adds another pressure point on the Republican governor, who is increasingly facing criticism for how he has reopened the state.
United Faculty of Florida President Karen Morian said during a conference call with reporters that faculty members across the state are concerned that the reopening plans of many universities and colleges have “too many common shortcomings” related to the health and safety of students and staff.
“We are concerned that the institutional plans were developed six to eight weeks ago, when COVID-19 conditions in Florida were decidedly different than today and that a majority of those plans have not been updated to address our state’s current pandemic conditions,” Morian said.
The state university system’s Board of Governors in late June approved the reopening plans of each of the state’s 12 universities. Most university plans include offering a mix of online education and face-to-face classes for students, who were sent home from campuses in March to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But Morian is concerned that 17 Florida institutions have not revised or updated their plans since late June, when the pandemic was tamer than it is today.
“We don’t believe that the public health situation on the ground is possible to be improved enough to open by the end of August, or beginning of September,” Morian said.
Florida’s Department of Health reported 8,892 new COVID-19 cases and 77 additional deaths on Monday, and the state is one of the hottest virus spots in the world. In total, 432,747 people have been diagnosed with the deadly respiratory illness in Florida and 5,931 residents have died.
“When you see this data, please know these are not numbers. They are human beings, daughters, mothers, fathers and loved ones, and in some cases, lone breadwinners of their families,” United Faculty of Florida Vice President Jaffar Ali Shahul-Hammed said during the conference call Monday.
Board of Governors Chairman Syd Kitson in late June acknowledged it is likely schools will see new cases pop up as students and employees return to campus.
“Social-distancing policies and other protections for students and employees will become the norm for the foreseeable future,” Kitson said.
At the time, all state university leaders said they would require the use of face masks on campus, with a few schools saying they intend to reprimand employees and students who do not comply.
Some schools, including the University of North Florida and Florida A&M University, plan to hold face-to-face classes on Saturday or later in the day to accommodate students who want to learn in person while keeping class sizes small.
But Morian said it is “disturbing” that many institutions have not implemented plans for additional support for students if they are required to quarantine after testing positive for the virus or if professors get sick.
“You’re setting them out for a situation where they may not be prepared to be online. Those kinds of situations happened in the spring, and we don’t want to see them again,” she said.
Union officials are also concerned about issues such as colleges and universities having inadequate plans to track and trace cases on campus; a lack of social-distancing measures in classrooms; and faculty and students with medical vulnerabilities being forced to come back to campus as a result of their courses being offered face-to-face.
While the union called on DeSantis and other state officials to move the fall semester entirely online, Morian said the organization is not ready to sue the state to halt the reopening process.
DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran last week were sued by the Florida Education Association to overturn an emergency order that requires public schools to reopen five days a week. The teachers’ union argued the policy defies national and public-health guidelines. The lawsuit also wants a court to ensure schools have enough personal protective equipment and supplies before reopening campuses.
The governor, a close ally of President Donald Trump, has followed the lead of the president, who has pushed states to reopen schools. DeSantis has repeated his belief that schools can reopen safely because children are at “extremely low” risk of getting sick.
DeSantis, however, has said in the last month that Florida is seeing more cases because young adults are going out more and socializing at a greater rate.
Marcus Milani, a junior at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said it would be “reckless” for the state to move forward with university reopening plans knowing that young adults have recently contributed to the spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Gainesville is a city in which thousands of workers will have to come into continuous contact with us students.” Milani said. “So, the administration’s plan to reopen is deadly not only to students, but also to those who operate the dining halls, restaurants, grocery stores within our community.”