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Florida's Universities Focused On Reopening While Grappling With Many Questions

While no plans are final, consensus is building at some universities.
USF Alumni Association/Twitter
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As Florida universities face a mid-June deadline to solidify plans for safely reopening campuses in the fall, some school leaders continue to wrestle with questions.

After campuses were shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, some of the questions gnawing at school leaders are: Who will need to be tested for the virus? Will temperature checks be required before entering classrooms? What will student housing look like? What restrictions will at-risk students and faculty face? What’s the plan for people who get sick mid-semester?

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State university system Chancellor Marshall Criser may answer some of the questions next week, when he rolls out guidelines that all universities will need to follow before they submit individual reopening plans to the system’s Board of Governors by June 12. The board is slated to consider the plans June 23.

But in the midst of all the uncertainty, university leaders are focused on meeting the deadline.

“Of course we wish we had more time. But you know, the fact of the matter is we have to open campus in August, so we really have to have these decisions made so we can go and start putting things in place,” Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent told The News Service of Florida in an interview Wednesday.

University of Central Florida trustee Joseph Harrington said during a conference call on Thursday that a lot of faculty members are “quite concerned” about returning to campus in the fall, but transparency about the plans is helping quell those fears.

“Very few people are saying, ‘Yeah, it’s time. Let’s go right back right now.’ The most that people are saying is, ‘You know, I have a performance class or a ceramics class or an upper-division physics lab class that really can’t be done any other way so let’s explore what we have to do,’” Harrington, a faculty member, said.

While no plans are final --- and university officials maintain that plans will likely keep changing due to the coronavirus still being a novel virus --- consensus is building at some universities.

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The University of Central Florida Board of Trustees on Thursday talked about requiring everyone on campus to use face masks, moving certain classes to arenas or large conference rooms to allow social distancing and setting aside some dorms that can be used to quarantine people.

UCF officials are also developing plans that would allow at-risk employees and students to continue working and learning remotely, looking into the care of students who would be forced to quarantine in on-campus housing and considering online activities for students, as social events would be restricted.

Michael Deichen, associate vice president of UCF Student Health Services, said the university currently has no plans to require people to have their temperatures checked before entering classrooms or buildings.

“The biggest bang for the buck is the physical distancing, the use of facial coverings, hand hygiene and environmental controls,” Deichen said. “Checking temperatures before entering classrooms is of questionable benefit.”

UCF trustee Alex Martins said university officials should reconsider having mandatory temperature checks in the fall because it would be of social benefit and boost “consumer confidence” that the school is serious about keeping everyone safe.

Another big question that remains pertains to testing for the virus --- and how to do it.

For example, Florida Polytechnic officials are not convinced everyone needs to be tested upon returning to school.

Instead, Avent said the school is considering testing at-risk individuals, people who have visited virus hotspots or people who are known to be “more social” than others. For this to work, the school would rely on self-reporting.

“Students who are more social and are out and around other students more often are more likely to get it than students that came to spend most of their time inside their dorm rooms,” Avent said.

By June, Avent said the university will be able to figure out agreements with local health officials and laboratories to conduct the necessary testing for students and staff. He said the university, which only has one building with two entrances, is also looking at whether it should acquire infrared cameras that would help detect if people have fevers.

Exactly how much money the plans will cost the school remains to be seen. But Avent said he is confident the university will figure it out.

“There will have to be enough money. We’ll have to find money for it because first and foremost, everyone has agreed that safety of students, but also of our employees, is a primary concern,” Avent said.

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