Florida universities plan ‘normal’ operations amid COVID-19 spike

Universities across states encouraging students, staff to get vaccinated while keeping mask-wearing optional

Students walk across the University of North Florida campus. (News4Jax)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State universities are staying on track for a return to normal “pre-pandemic” operations as the fall semester approaches, while Florida grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Classes begin Aug. 23 for most universities. While universities remain poised to keep mask-wearing optional and discontinue limits on the numbers of people in classrooms, they are encouraging students, faculty and staff members to get vaccinated.

Most universities began publishing plans for a return to normalcy around the time the university system’s Board of Governors issued guidance in May.

“The State University System of Florida is pleased to announce that all 12 public universities expect to increase classroom occupancy to pre-COVID capacity by the 2021-22 academic year and return to pre-COVID operations,” the Board of Governors said in a May 5 news release. “Further, we anticipate returning to full in-person participation in athletic and social activities on our campuses, including fan participation in stadiums and arenas.”

The University of Florida’s plan, published on May 17, was titled, “Transition to normal campus operations.” The advisory spelled out that the campus will return to “pre-pandemic classroom capacity,” a change that took effect during the summer term. The university also approved full in-person participation for athletics, including fan attendance.

It also detailed a mask-optional policy for people on campus, attributed to “recently released national guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and “in concert with the State University System.”

But the guidance from the Board of Governors and the plans published by the universities came before the surge in cases in recent weeks, largely driven by the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The increase in cases has led to hospitals filling up with COVID-19 patients and local officials trying to curb the spread of the virus. For instance, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings declared a local state of emergency Wednesday and ordered vaccinations for county employees.

The CDC issued new guidelines Tuesday advising that all people, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear masks in schools and areas of “substantial or high” transmission.

On Thursday, a University of Florida spokesman told The News Service of Florida that the university wouldn’t reverse course on masks or the number of people allowed in classrooms.

“Masks are optional, and we recommend those not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to continue wearing them. We will continue to monitor the progress of the pandemic, both locally and nationally and are always prepared to modify our approach if conditions warrant,” Steve Orlando, UF’s assistant vice president for communications, said.

While Demings declared a state of emergency in Orange County, the University of Central Florida is encouraging students to “armor up” --- a nod to the Orlando school’s mascot, the Knights -- but will keep masks optional and classrooms at normal capacity.

“Because vaccines are widely available and extremely effective, UCF will not offer special considerations or extended online alternatives to in-person instruction this fall,” a news release from the university said Thursday.

UCF said students who choose not to get vaccinated “assume the risks of contracting COVID-19 and its impact on their studies, work and other activities.”

In Jacksonville, where local officials have cautioned that the COVID-19 spike is putting stress on local hospitals, University of North Florida President David Szymanski issued a message to his campus Wednesday, urging people to get vaccinated to “keep our campus fully operational” in the fall.

“Here in Jacksonville and nearby counties, new infections are increasing at the fastest rate since the start of the pandemic. During this current surge, we are also seeing younger, unvaccinated individuals being hospitalized at an alarming rate,” Szymanksi said.

UNF plans for its transition to normal operations to be finalized by Sunday.

“UNF strongly encourages vaccinations and mask wearing although there is no current mandate. UNF will continue to monitor updated guidelines and will make adjustments accordingly as we approach the fall semester,” a spokeswoman told the News Service in an email.

The university system scrambled to close campuses and shift to online learning in March 2020 after the pandemic hit the state. University leaders then spent months taking precautions and putting in place plans for the 2020-2021 school year.

At least one university, Florida Gulf Coast University, is expecting more students to come back to campus this fall than last year.

“We’re looking, I believe, at a slight uptick in enrollment, that the residence halls will be very close to full, that we’ll be able to get back to normal activities on campus including intercollegiate athletics, intramurals … sororities, fraternities and hosting the community at our campus,” Florida Gulf Coast President Mike Martin said in a June 29 video address.

While Florida Gulf Coast discontinued a mask requirement in May, the school issued an update to students Wednesday in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated mask guidance.

“FGCU is aware of the recent change in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Campus leaders are working around the clock to review and update our policies and procedures relative to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the university said on its website.

The university posted on its website that 38 percent of its students taking classes over the summer were fully vaccinated.

Florida State University issued a letter to employees Wednesday acknowledging “concern among the campus community” as the semester approaches, amid a “significant” increase in coronavirus cases locally.

The university is recommending masks be worn indoors and that everyone on campus get vaccinated.

“While our authority is limited by the state of Florida and the university cannot mandate vaccines, testing or mask wearing, we do promote these mitigation efforts,” FSU wrote in the letter.

The presidents of all 12 state universities joined together this week to ask students returning to campus to get vaccinated. The presidents signed an open letter published by the Board of Governors.

The Board of Governors did not answer a question from the News Service about whether it plans to issue new guidance ahead of the fall semester. Its next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 31.

Getting creative

Even though universities are prohibited from mandating students get vaccinated, they’re getting creative with ways to encourage students to get the shot.

“Our numbers are such that we really, really need to push it,” said FAMU Student Health Director Tanya Tatum.

At FAMU, $1 million in federal relief funds have been put toward a vaccine raffle.

Students who get the jab can enter for a chance to win gift cards and even iPads.

“We actually had over 200 entries, so we’re pretty excited and we’ve actually seen a slight increase in the numbers of individuals at the vaccination site,” said Tatum.

Reactions to the vaccine raffle at FAMU were mixed. Students who were already vaccinated said their unvaccinated peers are going to be hard to convince.

“When you think about the health aspect of it, to them it might be bigger than just a cash prize,” said incoming FAMU freshman Danielle Samuel.

FAMU student Deandre Frances said parental influence may be playing a role.

“Parents don’t want their kids to get vaccinated because they don’t know how it’ll affect them,” said Frances.

At FSU, the strategy is centered around consistent public messaging.

“I have a vaccination, Jean and I both did. I believe it’s a safe thing to do,” said FSU President John Thrasher.

Thrasher joined the state’s 11 other public university presidents and signed a letter this week strongly urging students to get vaccinated.

“You know we have limited things we can do. We can recommend masks, we can recommend vaccinations, we can recommend social distancing, all of those things, but it comes back to individual responsibility,” said Thrasher.

Last year in the capital city, the return of students in August brought one of the highest local case spikes of the pandemic.

Health officials hope they can avoid a repeat if their vaccination efforts are successful.

The FAMU campus vaccination site has so far administered more than 10,000 shots.

FSU’s campus vaccination clinic has administered over 20,000 shots.

About the Authors:

Ryan Dailey is a reporter with experience in print and radio, having covered state and local news in Tallahassee since 2014. A graduate of Florida State University, Dailey has been a resident of the capital city since 2012. He joined the News Service of Florida in 2021, reporting with a focus on education and education policy.