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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

In combat, third generation military veteran Paul Ortiz said creating a plan gives people a sense of stability. But when the situation changes, the plans must change with it.

Now, a UF professor and president of UF’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, he said this rule applies to UF’s plan to reopen campus in the Fall. Ortiz and the union are calling for the university to update its course of action.

United Faculty of Florida, the union for Florida’s higher education faculty, asked Gov. Ron DeSantis and other representatives on July 27 for Florida institutions not to teach in-person classes in Fall. They say they are terrified of returning in Fall and are asking the administration to come up with a more robust plan that takes recent COVID-19 spikes in Florida into account, Ortiz said.

Ortiz praised UF for transferring all classes online in March after DeSantis announced four UF students tested positive for COVID-19.

But now, Ortiz fears the university will be moving in reverse by holding some Fall classes in person.

He said he is most concerned for members of the Gainesville community. This worry doesn’t stop with students, faculty and staff of UF, he said, but also includes residents surrounding the large university, like on-campus workers, custodians, cafeteria workers and small business owners.

He said people at UF often forget that their actions have a ripple effect on the community surrounding communities, such as Gainesville, Newberry and Archer.

The university must listen to the guidelines of health officials in the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization to reopen safely, he said. Those guidelines must be included in addition to revising its original reopening plans, which were approved over six weeks ago, he said.

The plan approved by the Florida Board of Governors, which makes decisions on Florida public universities, states that students are not required to be tested, but will be isolated if they are infected.

As of Saturday afternoon, Florida has about 526,577 positive cases of COVID-19 and about 8,109 residential deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health. On the same website, Alachua County has reported about 4,035 positive cases.

He also called for faculty to be more included in the discussion about reopening, as they have valuable insight and experience that are not being utilized right now.

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Oscar Crisalle, a UF chemical engineering professor and UFF senator, said many faculty are terrified to come back to teach because of their age or older people in their lives they need to care for outside of their time at the university.

He said UF is not fully prepared for reopening and outlined some aspects of life on campus UF has not addressed, such as how the university will sanitize desks and seats between lectures.

“There is no mechanism in place that would ensure that we have a workplace, and that the students have a learning environment that is not threatening to their lives,” he said. “This is a very serious matter.”

After teaching at UF for 29 years, he feels his loyalty is being returned with betrayal and wonders why the university would place their employees' lives at risk, he said.

“If we go by the statistics, in terms of the mortality rate that is being experienced in Florida, we can say with very high probability that faculty and students will die,” he said.

Sharon Austin has been teaching classes on minority politics at UF since 2001 and is a member of UFF who hopes to see very strict guidelines on campus implemented to keep the community safe.

“I think there should be a no compromise type of policy, you have to wear the mask,” she said. “And if you don't wear the mask, then you don't need to be on campus.”

Valerie DeLeon is an associate UF anthropology professor and will be teaching ANT4525 in person during the Fall semester, but she has taken action beyond UF’s reopening plan to help keep her students safe. Along with smaller class sizes, social distancing and mask guidelines, she has created a threshold for how bad positive COVID-19 cases can get in Alachua County before she cancels her class.

She said if the positive rate of cases is over 10 percent for seven days or if the trailing average, the average of the previous seven days, is increasing, she will cancel her classes for one week then reassess whether to bring the students back or not. She hopes to see similar action from the university administration.

“I would like to know what the threshold is like if that's already known in advance what the threshold is that would result in like a temporary shutdown,” she said. “I do not have that information.”

In the letter sent to DeSantis as well as Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Florida State University System Chancellor Marshall Criser and Florida College System Chancellor Kathy Hebda, UFF leaders said the state would create more uncertainty by opening the campuses prematurely than closing them after because cases rose.

And there is inadequate or no protocol for testing, tracking and tracing COVID-19, or how universities should respond to “inevitable” lawsuits, said the letter from UFF President Karen Morian and UFF First Vice President Jaffar Ali Shahul Hameed.

One week after it was sent, UFF did not receive any sort of response on their initial letters and sent a follow-up letter to the officials, stressing the importance of moving Florida’s universities online wherever possible for the semester.

Morian said the decision to ask for remote learning in Fall did not come from officials in UFF, but from members of the union and of the community who expressed concern.

“We tried to help with the how to reopen safely,” Morian said. “We feel that we’re beyond that, and this is the new direction that we’re going to be taking.”

Florida universities serve more than 1 million students, the letter said. According to the current rate of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and death among college-aged students, the letter states, reopening would risk causing about 25,000 students to be hospitalized statewide and about 2,000 could die.

With Fall classes starting in less than a month, faculty say they hope students at least treat the situation with caution to help keep transmission of COVID-19 down in the community.

“I think we can do a better job, all of us, you know, students, faculty administration, to model the behavior that says that this is a global pandemic,” Ortiz said. “This is a crisis moment in world history.”

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