Private colleges pivot to remote learning but FL public universities won’t go virtual despite COVID

FSU President McCullough expects “medical-grade face masks” on campus as COVID cases skyrocket

By: - January 4, 2022 7:00 am

Florida State University campus. Credit: Diane Rado.

In Florida, the private University of Miami announced last week that it will pivot to remote learning for the first two weeks of the spring semester, given the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Elsewhere, several private colleges and universities such as Harvard, Howard, Stanford, Syracuse and Northwestern plan to resume classes in a virtual setting for at least part of the spring semester, according to a report from NBC News.

But so far, none of Florida’s public universities are making that transition during the spring 2022 academic semester, despite concerns from faculty union leaders that officials aren’t making the right decisions to protect campus communities throughout Florida.

“We are severely disappointed with the overall response to COVID at higher education institutions,” said Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida.

Gothard disagrees with the decision by Florida’s state university system to open spring semester with in-person classes. He said in a phone interview with the Phoenix that university officials should be “listening to medical experts” to make decisions to protect students, faculty and staff, such as using remote learning opportunities.

“We don’t think that politics should be involved in local safety decisions,” Gothard said.

That said, Gov. Ron DeSantis stated in a news conference Monday that Florida’s public schools as well as the state’s public universities should remain open for in-person instruction.

“Our schools will be open in the state of Florida,” DeSantis told reporters, adding, “I’d also say the same with our state universities. … Our universities are going to be open, our state universities. They’re going to have in-person instruction, and I think any university that doesn’t do that should have to refund 100 percent of the tuition to the parents.”

Amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and the highly transmissible omicron variant continuing to sweep the nation, public university system leaders in Florida say they are taking precautions.

Renee Fargason, spokeswoman for the State University System of Florida, confirmed in an email to the Florida Phoenix Monday that “none of our universities are going remote” in the upcoming spring 2022 semester.

In fact, the system expects to “continue to offer a comprehensive array of academic classes and degree programs,” according to a letter written by Syd Kitson, chair of the Florida Board of Governors, and Chancellor Marshall Criser III.

The letter was sent last week to students, faculty and staff at Florida’s 12 public universities, to address safety concerns about spring plans to combat the surge, Fargason said.

The letter stated: “It is clear the pandemic is not over, and as we prepare for the spring semester, we must also remain vigilant and follow the policies and protocols that are shown to limit the impacts of the virus. The best way to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on our campuses and our communities is to protect yourself, your family, and your friends every day by following the recommended precautions, including wearing masks, testing when necessary, and getting fully vaccinated, including a booster, if you are able to do so.”

At Florida State University in Tallahassee, President Richard McCullough sent a message to the campus community last week, providing details about safety procedures for the upcoming semester, according to spokeswoman Amy Farnum-Patronis.

“Medical-grade face masks, such as N95 or KN95 masks, will be expected on campus,” the FSU president said. “Cloth masks are less effective against the highly transmissible variants such as Delta and Omicron.”

By Monday, FSU residence halls were reopening and spring 2022 semester courses will be starting Wednesday of this week.

In the message, McCullough stated:

“All students, regardless of vaccination status, are strongly encouraged to test before traveling/returning to campus. Students should complete a COVID-19 test 48-72 hours prior to traveling/returning to campus. Students testing positive for COVID-19 should not travel/return to campus while contagious and instead immediately notify their instructors their first-day attendance will be delayed. Instructors will accommodate delayed attendance.”

In addition, “COVID-19 vaccination and booster shots will be continue to be offered and available during the spring semester to any interested students, faculty, and staff and to their eligible dependent children. We encourage everyone to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine/booster to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Spring vaccination clinic dates will be posted at when available.”

At the University of Florida in Gainesville, spokesman Steve Orlando told the Phoenix that in-person classes will resume when students return this week, despite the rise in COVID-19 cases.

“We have no plans for remote classes for the spring semester,” Orlando said in an email Monday to the Phoenix.

The University of South Florida in Tampa also will begin offering in-person instruction next week, according to spokesman Kevin Watler.

“USF’s spring semester begins on Monday, January 10, and we continue to plan for in-person classes,” Watler said. “Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to get the vaccine and a booster shot, stay home if they don’t feel well and get tested if they experience any symptoms of COVID-19.”

Larry Robinson, president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, sent a letter Friday to the campus community, encouraging students to comply with safety practices, such as wearing a mask, testing regularly and getting vaccinated.

The university operates a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site located on campus for students, faculty, staff and the community. In-person classes will begin on Wednesday.

“Following recommended precautions are critical to limiting the spread of the virus. Remember, we all share responsibility for keeping our friends, families and campus community safe,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, at the University of Miami, students will be doing remote learning for the first two weeks of the spring semester, according to a video message from UM President Julio Frenk. Classes will start Jan. 18, he said, with in-person instruction resuming on Jan. 31.

The message also said that, “Our definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ now includes receiving the appropriate booster shot, as soon as it is advisable. Students who have not documented that they are fully vaccinated will continue to test twice per week,” among other measures.

“From the start of the pandemic, we have implemented an adaptive and responsive approach to keep our community healthy,” Frenk said.

“At this point in the trajectory of COVID-19, the virus has adapted, becoming more contagious with the omicron variant. We must similarly adapt.”

Phoenix reporter Laura Cassels contributed to this report.

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.