Florida college courses should remain online-only in fall, faculty union says

Courses at Florida’s college and universities should remain online-only this fall, said the union that

Courses at Florida’s college and universities should remain online-only this fall, said the union that represents faculty members across the state, citing fears of the spread of coronavirus.

Leaders from the United Faculty of Florida, which represents instructors at all 12 public universities and 14 state colleges, and the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said Monday during a press conference that sending students back to campus next month would be dangerous.

As of Monday, the state has reported 432,747 coronavirus cases and 5,931 deaths since the pandemic began. The first day of fall classes varies between campuses. The University of Central Florida plans to return Aug. 24.

“Opening the colleges and universities at this time can only make things worse, and it is a step in the wrong direction,” said Jaffar Ali Shahul-Hameed, a vice president for the union and an associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Florida’s public universities switched to online-only classes and mostly shuttered their campuses in mid-March as the number of coronavirus cases around the state grew. Last month, school leaders submitted plans for reopening to the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. Those plans generally call for a variety of measures intended to limit the spread of the virus, including requiring masks indoors and reducing dormitory capacity, and a mix of online-only and in-person classes.

But union leaders sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday arguing those plans were approved weeks ago — when the state had far fewer virus cases.

“We love face-to-face teaching and miss our students but, as much as our faculty and students fervently wish to get back to our classrooms, the steadily rising COVID-19 infections and deaths warn against it,” said the letter signed by United Faculty of Florida President Karen Morian and Jaffar Ali Shahul-Hameed.

A spokesman for DeSantis couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday.

Deandre Poole, an instructor at Florida Atlantic University, said he worried the decision to resume in-person classes was motivated by politics, not the best interests of students and employees.

“It is wrong for our officials to play a game of Russian roulette with our lives,” Poole said, adding “we must not open up.”

Board of Governors spokeswoman Renee Fargason said the priority of each school’s plan is “the health and welfare of all students, faculty, staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors.”

“Universities designed their plans with the agility necessary to respond to changed conditions and enhance the resiliency of each institution,” Fargason wrote in an email.

The plans vary greatly between campuses, even within the same region. UCF, for example, plans to hold about 30% of its classes in-person this fall, though courses with more than 70 students enrolled will be taught remotely. Valencia College, however, says it will remain mostly online-only. State colleges like Valencia are overseen by the Florida Department of Education, which didn’t respond to a request for comment on the matter on Monday.

The state’s teachers union also has pushed back against next month’s planned reopening of K-12 schools, filing a lawsuit last week against DeSantis.

anmartin@orlandosentinel.com

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