University system leaders approve blueprint for reopening

Century Tower at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, Florida. [Photo courtesy: UF]

The Florida university system’s governing board on Thursday approved a broad blueprint for how to reopen campuses in the fall, which will help schools as they work to finalize their individual plans over the next two weeks. 

State university system Chancellor Marshall Criser told the Board of Governors that each university will have the flexibility to determine crucial details, including which individuals will need to be tested for COVID-19, rules for the use of face masks, and alternatives for students and faculty who may be at high risk of getting sick.

“The need for flexibility for all students, faculty and staff is ultimately going to be the foundation for the agility we need, and the resiliency we need, as we reopen our campuses,” Criser said during Thursday’s BOG meeting, which could be attended by video or phone.

University campuses were emptied out in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The move left thousands of students and faculty across the state learning and teaching online for the rest of the spring semester. University officials have pledged a return to in-person or hybrid instruction for the fall semester.

The guidelines approved on Thursday acknowledge that an uptick of COVID-19 in the fall could force classes back online or prompt other changes to the plans universities submit to the Board of Governors for approval, which are due June 12.

“What we know from COVID-19 today is that things change and what we know about COVID-19 going forward is that things are likely to change,” Criser said.

Under the blueprint approved Thursday, universities will be required to cobble plans “to quickly respond to significant increases in virus infections and hospitalization rates.” Universities also will have to set thresholds for campus infections that will trigger a return to tighter social distancing guidelines.

And university leaders will have to devise COVID-19 testing plans to determine who should be tested, as well as when and how often they should undergo tests.

Criser said that approximately 300,0000 students in the state university system attend a school that is outside of the county in which they reside, meaning thousands of students are expected to be traveling when campuses reopen in the fall.

“We are going to be moving a significant number of people from one health environment to another health environment,” Criser said, noting it will be “vital” to have testing and screening protocols in place.

As universities configure individual plans, some school officials are not convinced everyone will need to be tested when they return to campus.

Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent told The News Service of Florida last week that the school is considering testing at-risk individuals, people who have visited virus hot spots, or people who are known to be “more social” than others.

“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 in a phone interview.

University testing policies and agreements with local hospitals or health care systems should take into consideration the local testing capacity to ensure the tests can be executed, Criser said Thursday.

University COVID-19 testing plans should also include a process that will enable health care professionals to rapidly respond to hot spots identified on campuses, Criser said.

The state guidelines do not mandate the use of face masks at all university campuses, but allow universities to determine specifics about the use of face coverings, which health experts say are an effective tool to prevent the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus that causes the deadly respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

The Board of Governors’ guidelines also make no mention of whether students, faculty and staff should have their temperatures checked prior to entering buildings or classrooms on campus. Universities could address the issue in their individual screening plans, however.

University of Central Florida officials said during a Board of Trustees meeting last week that they had no plans to perform temperature checks before people enter classrooms or buildings.

“The biggest bang for the buck is the physical distancing, the use of facial coverings, hand hygiene and environmental controls. Checking temperatures before entering classrooms is of questionable benefit,” Michael Deichen, the associate vice president of UCF Student Health Services, said on May 21.

But UCF trustee Alex Martins asked the school to reconsider, arguing that temperature checks would be a social benefit and would boost “consumer confidence” that the school is keeping everyone safe.

Criser, however, stressed the need for “shared responsibility” in the community to make the universities’ plans work. He said each university should emphasize that the health and safety of the campus is a responsibility shared by students, employees, vendors, volunteers and visitors, as well as surrounding community members and businesses. 

Board of Governors member Charlie Lydecker strongly supported that position during Thursday’s meeting.

“I don't think any of it works unless all members of the university take personal responsibility,” Lydecker said.