Florida State University’s Jennie Murphree Hall. Credit: FSU, University Housing website.
With the fall 2021-22 semester opening soon in Florida, many public college students will be returning to in-person classrooms at normal capacity, regardless of vaccine status, mask preferences and the dogged COVID pandemic.
That generally means no mandates, unlike what’s happening at hundreds of college campuses across the nation that are requiring students to be vaccinated to enroll.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of Indiana University’ vaccine requirement for students, according to The New York Times.
But that’s not the case in Florida’s higher education circles.
No mandates for vaccines or face coverings on campus
Last year, amid the pandemic, public colleges and universities reopened with safety measures in place, such as mask requirements and social distancing. Campuses turned to hybrid learning, consisting of in-person and online classes.
This academic year, Florida’s 12 public universities are strongly recommending but not enforcing any vaccine or mask requirements for students, faculty, and staff — even though COVID cases have been skyrocketing as the more transmissible Delta variant has ripped through the nation.
Still, sporting events and other campus activities that bring large crowds will resume as well on Florida’s public campuses.
The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities, recently issued health guidance to university officials, recommending everyone on campus get fully vaccinated, wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccine status, administer regular COVID testing, and other safety practices.
“The System [Board of Governors] expects students to wear face coverings indoors. However, there are no mandates for vaccines or face coverings on campus,” Renee Fargason, spokeswoman for the State University System of Florida, said in an email to the Florida Phoenix.
Meanwhile, the private Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach has a different plan: “Faculty, staff, students, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, are REQUIRED to wear masks both indoor and out while on campus,” according to its latest campus announcement.
Bethune is one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) across the nation.
At least one shot?
Florida A&M University in Tallahassee — a public HBCU — is advising students to get fully vaccinated before coming to campus in the fall and wear masks in campus facilities. FAMU also offers a vaccine and testing site on its campus.
Last week, FAMU President Dr. Larry Robinson sent a letter to the university community, saying students who are unable to get fully vaccinated “should have at least one shot of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine before the first day of classes on Aug. 23.”
Adahlia Thomas is a senior at FAMU planning to graduate in the fall. In a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix, Thomas said she received both doses of the Moderna vaccine in May. Although masks aren’t required, Thomas plans to continue to wear one on campus.
“I am definitely going to still wear my mask to be safe because I will be staying with my grandmother and she has immunocompromised health,” Thomas said.
But FAMU students planning to live in dormitories or other housing on-campus will have to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests, according to guidelines from the Office of University Housing.
“Proof of vaccination or a negative test result is required within 3 days of your scheduled move-in appointment,” the document reads. And residents will have to upload those results or vaccine history paperwork to FAMU’s website.
FAMU hasn’t responded to a request for comment from the Phoenix about the vaccine requirement.
At the University of South Florida in Tampa, those similar safety protocols are also being implemented for students staying in residence halls in the fall. According to its website, residents will undergo a COVID-19 health screening with a mask, and are asked to bring “any COVID testing or vaccination history.”
Althea Paul, a USF spokesperson, told the Phoenix that “proof of vaccination history or COVID-19 testing is not required to move into residence halls” but residents can “bring those items for their own references,” part of the health screening process.
What about state law?
At issue is whether those housing policies could violate state laws. A spokesperson from the United Faculty of Florida declined to comment on the issue.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 2006 into law in May, barring an educational institution from requiring “students or residents to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery for attendance or enrollment, or to gain access to, entry upon, or service from such educational institution in this state.”
Press Secretary Christina Pushaw, of the governor’s office, said in an email to the Phoenix that those college housing policies don’t violate a state law that bans so-called vaccine passports for businesses and education institutions.
“Under state law, educational institutions are prohibited from requiring proof of vaccination from their students. FAMU and USF’s policies do not appear to violate the law, though, because they aren’t requiring vaccine passports for entry,” Pushaw explained.
“If a student declines to show proof of vaccination, they have the option to show a negative COVID test instead. This is acceptable under SB 2006, because students have the choice to show a vaccine passport or not.”
Vaccines have so far been mandated for students or employees at at least 730 higher education institutions, both public and private, across the country, according to an analysis from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Chronicle’s list includes four Florida private schools that require vaccinations: the University of Miami (employees only); Jacksonville University (employees only); Nova Southeastern University (employees only), and Johnson & Wales University-North Miami, (employees and all students).
The list also includes two for-profit Florida schools, Chamberlain University at Jacksonville and Miramar, that require employees and all students to be vaccinated.
Many of the college and universities requiring student and employee vaccinations are in the Northeast, including schools in Massachusetts and New York, as well as Illinois in the Midwest, according to the Chronicle. Many California colleges and universities are on the vaccination-related list too.
The Chronicle’s analysis includes states by color — red and blue — based on results of the 2020 presidential election.
Do the sensible thing
Meanwhile, the United Faculty of Florida is urging the DeSantis administration to impose safety protocols, such as requiring masks indoors, push for vaccine sites on campuses, and provide remote teaching and learning opportunities.
“Our hope is they will come out and do the sensible thing and do a mask mandate,” Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said in a phone interview with the Phoenix.
“We think higher ed campuses could facilitate vaccine drives. No one should have to choose between their education or paychecks and their lives.”
According to a July 23 update on guidance for higher education institutions, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave a green light for administrators to forgo mask and physical distancing requirements if all students, faculty, and staff “are fully vaccinated prior to the start of the semester.”
That means college students “can return to full capacity in-person learning” if everyone is fully vaccinated prior to the beginning of the semester, according to CDC’s recommendations.
However, in “areas of substantial to high transmission” of COVID, the CDC recommends that everyone on campus, including students, staff, and faculty, should wear masks and practice social distancing indoors.
The agency also suggests regular COVID testing for unvaccinated people on campus and promoting “vaccine trust and confidence” and making vaccines easily accessible to those who want to get inoculated.
Florida State University, in Tallahassee, plans to return to “normal, pre-pandemic operations” in the fall, spokeswoman Amy Farnum-Patronis told the Florida Phoenix. But the university expects people to get vaccinated and wear masks even if they’ve received the vaccine.
The University of Florida in Gainesville is also resuming normal in-person operations of classes and campus events in the fall, said spokesman Steve Orlando. The university previously said in a campus update that “fully immunized adults need not wear masks.”
However, in a campus announcement last week, UF said “we expect everyone to wear a mask at all times when inside any UF facility, even if you are vaccinated,” citing rising cases and “large numbers of people who are unvaccinated.”
Tallahassee Community College adopted a mask-optional policy on campus, but students will be required to wear face coverings in other settings, said spokeswoman Ayanna Young.
“TCC is still allowing masks to be optional on campus. The college is practicing responsibility and respect,” Young said in an email to the Phoenix.
“TCC will require masks and other protective safety equipment in certain programs such as our healthcare programs and our commercial truck driving program. The college will also require masks in laboratory settings.”
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