Going virtual or not? Odd exchange that had UF leaders scrambling

Fully online not an option, according to Florida leaders.
By: | August 16, 2021
Photo by Chris Burt

On Friday, students at the University of Florida received an email hinting that the 2021-22 academic year could begin online.

“The mode of delivery for your courses may be changed to a virtual environment for the first three weeks of class,” Vice President for Student Life D’Andra Mull wrote.

That letter was significant, considering that UF had not wavered in its stance on a full reopening throughout the summer, according to its strategic reopening plans: “In-person classes will be at pre-pandemic capacities, employees will travel more on university business, students will resume study abroad experiences, laboratories and libraries will operate at full throttle.”

But a short time after Mull’s email, university officials sent out another one, saying UF indeed would open for face-to-face learning. The dueling communications stoked a firestorm of confusion and bold reactions across social media on what has become a sensitive subject, especially where the delta variant is raging. In states where COVID counts are high, should large institutions such as UF be fully reopening or moving hybrid or online environments to start the year? Or would they better serve their populations by keeping them on campus and operating “near normal”?

Before the odd exchange of emails on Friday and despite the lack of mask or vaccine mandates, the University of Florida and others in the state system had been strong in communications during the summer and fall about expectations for students, faculty and staff.

“COVID-19 cases are surging because of the new delta variant and the large numbers of people who are unvaccinated, setting new local and state records for hospitalizations,” UF leaders wrote on Aug. 6. “All of us have an obligation to each do our part to prevent further transmission of COVID-19. … We expect everyone to wear a mask at all times when inside any UF facility, even if you are vaccinated. If you are not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you are sick, stay home and self-quarantine.”

But that guidance hasn’t been strong enough for faculty at UF. In a joint statement released the previous day, the United Faculty of Florida Task Force said, “The University of Florida faces a real emergency. We simply cannot ignore the recent precipitous rise in COVID infections, pretending that plans that may have seemed reasonable even a few weeks ago are still up to today’s challenge.” Included in their demands were mask mandates and providing remote instruction options where possible.

Those challenges and polarizing decisions come as Florida has experienced by far the most COVID-positive cases in the nation over seven days at more than 21,000. Florida also leads in the daily number of individuals hospitalized per 100,000 and is in the top five in daily deaths and deaths per 100,000. The Gainesville Sun, which broke the email exchange story, confirmed that UF Health Shands, the hospital network that primarily serves North Florida, was treating nine patients ages 19 and under, the most since March 2020.

Although no colleges or universities in the state have vaccine mandates, several private ones have instilled mask requirements, including Rollins College, Nova Southeastern University, Jacksonville University and Valencia College. Though UF and the state’s university system have not challenged Gov. Ron DeSantis’ directives to not impose mask mandates, a few school districts have, including the Alachua County School Public Schools district, which serves Gainesville. Though DeSantis threatened at one point to cut off salaries to superintendents making those decisions, the Biden Administration has said it would provide funds to cover them during the crisis. The Administration has not discussed potentially backing public university leaders who make similar decisions.

Few institutions have opted to return to online learning, instead leaning on mask mandates, vaccine mandates (700-plus institutions have them) or like UF, pinning hopes on their communities to be safe and smart.

The University of Texas at San Antonio is temporarily starting the year virtually because of the delta variant’s surge. That is slated to run through Sept. 12. Similarly, the Alamo Colleges District and its five community colleges in San Antonio have opted for two weeks of virtual learning for students. Without the ability to impose mask or vaccine mandates—Gov. Greg Abbott also has imposed bans on them—they aren’t left with many options.

The university with the longest lean to online is the California State University at Stanislaus, which is implementing all-virtual until October.

“As many of you have seen from recent campus notifications, we have been informed of several confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 on campus,” President Ellen Junn wrote to the community on Saturday. “Given these incidents, and our desire to have our testing program in place, our campus leadership has determined these actions to be in the best interest of the health and safety of the campus community. The Provost’s Office will work closely with deans, department chairs and faculty to consider some limited possible phased-in exceptions for some classes.”