TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Returning to campus is the next frontier in Florida’s reopening process, and several state universities are about to put their plans to the test.
As thousands of students move into their dorms this month, at least two state universities reported dozens of COVID-19 cases on campus before classes are set to begin Monday.
The situation at some Florida universities has mimicked events in other parts of the country, where several colleges experienced an uptick in infections days after students returned to campus this month.
“I would not be at all surprised if we had to shut down,” Florida State University professor Matthew Lata, who plans to return to in-person instruction next week, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday. “More and more universities, as they try to reopen, are experiencing a high risk of infection. So, I would not be surprised if we had to shut down.”
University leaders in Florida, one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic, have spent the summer deliberating how to reopen campuses in the fall.
As the start of the school year nears, universities are focused on making reopenings as safe as possible, with measures that include mandatory COVID-19 tests for students moving into dorms, reducing the number of face-to-face courses, requiring the use of face masks, and enhanced cleaning procedures.
Members of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing professors, have expressed concern that several universities are planning to operate under guidelines the schools crafted in late June, prior to a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases in the state.
Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg said Thursday the university intends to update some of its guidelines.
“Needless to say, the situation has changed dramatically that we are confronting between the period when the guidelines were outlined and today,” Rosenberg told the university’s Board of Trustees during a meeting Thursday.
For now, the university plans to slow the rush of students on campus by having approximately 6,000 undergraduate students start courses online Monday until Sept. 14, when their classes will resume in-person.
FIU Provost Kenneth Furton said the delay will give the university “a little more time to stress test the system,” suggesting that the goal is to avoid what happened at Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
UNC Chapel Hill and Michigan State both announced this week that all undergraduate students will be moved to online classes, after a spike in coranavirus cases. The University of Notre Dame this week also halted in-person instruction for the next two weeks, following a surge in positive cases.
In Chapel Hill, the COVID-19 positivity rate jumped from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent within the first week of school, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a letter to the university community Monday.
"As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation," Guskiewicz wrote.
As classes in Florida begin to resume on Monday, at least two state universities already have reported COVID-19 cases among students during the move-in process. Students are required to get tested for the virus prior to settling into their dorm rooms.
Florida State University spokeswoman Amy Farnum Patronis said Thursday that 42 students and five employees tested positive for the virus during the first two weeks of August. The university tested 3,222 students during the move-in process, she said.
For weeks, FSU officials refused to disclose whether any students had tested positive for the virus, saying that releasing the information “could lead to the identification of individuals and compromise their medical privacy.”
Meanwhile, the University of Central Florida has been publicly sharing the number of infections among students and employees since March. Since the start of the pandemic, 359 students and 114 employees have tested positive for the virus.
As students moved into their dorms this month, UCF reported 76 students tested positive for the virus. University spokeswoman Rachel Williams said the university is currently using 19 rooms to isolate students with COVID-19.
“We have our own team of contact tracers, and when we become aware of a case, we work hard to identify others who have potentially been exposed to that person so they can get tested and take appropriate precautions to protect themselves, their loved ones and their friends,” Williams said, adding that the university is expanding its contact-tracing teams.
FIU, which currently has 1,222 students living on-campus and about 4,000 graduate students starting in-person courses on Monday, did not immediately respond to requests seeking information about coronavirus cases on campus. More than 600 students are expected to move into the Miami campus this weekend.
Elizabeth Bejar, FIU’s vice president of academic and student affairs, said all FIU students will be required to fill out a screening questionnaire on a phone app that will determine if they should come to campus, stay home, monitor symptoms or seek medical attention.
“All residential students must complete the app every morning before leaving their residence to either go get breakfast or to begin classes come Monday,” Bejar told the trustees on Thursday.
The university also plans to crack down on student movement on campus.
“We have a no-visitor policy. Students cannot travel or visit from building to building,” Bejar said. “If you are a student in the university towers you are only inside the university towers. You are not traveling to go visit a friend in Park View or Lakeview or one of the other units.”