Florida public university officials urge vaccinations, masks on campus ahead of spring semester

Saying it is "clear the pandemic is not over," top Florida university system officials are asking students and employees to wear masks on campus and get booster shots to protect against COVID-19 as the spring semester prepares to start.

State university system Board of Governors Chairman Syd Kitson and system Chancellor Marshall Criser made the request in a letter to students, faculty and staff posted Wednesday on the board’s website.

"The best way to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on our campuses and our communities is to protect yourself, your family and your friends every day by following the recommended precautions, including wearing masks, testing when necessary and getting fully vaccinated, including a booster, if you are able to do so," the letter said.

The spring semester starts next week amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven, at least in part, by the highly-contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.

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Faculty union leaders at the University of Florida have asked school President Kent Fuchs to allow classes to be held online early in the semester.

"In order to mitigate the spread of COVID, UFF (the United Faculty of Florida) asks that our campus begin the spring semester in a remote, online posture in terms of classroom delivery and work assignments for the first three weeks of the term to assess the proper next steps to take — as it appears that the omicron variant may escalate later in January," Paul Ortiz, a history professor and president of the university’s faculty union, wrote in an email to Fuchs on Tuesday. "The added benefit of this approach is that we know from experience that classes offered in a remote modality are more family-friendly and accessible to students who have jobs, childcare or eldercare responsibilities."

Fuchs responded Wednesday to Ortiz, writing in an email that he will "let the bargaining team respond to items specifically from the union."

But Kitson and Criser in their letter promised in-person learning will continue on all university campuses.

"Looking ahead to the spring semester, you can expect all 12 of our state universities to continue to offer a comprehensive array of academic classes and degree programs and that facilities will be fully utilized based on the academic and extracurricular needs of each institution," the letter said.

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Ortiz also asked that Fuchs require masks on the University of Florida campus. The university system has kept an optional mask policy throughout the pandemic, preventing universities from mandating face coverings but allowing schools to recommend masks and vaccines for people on campus.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state Republican leaders have objected to vaccination and mask mandates in a variety of settings during the pandemic.

"While we recognize that our university has been under intense external pressures not to implement masking and vaccine mandates, I nonetheless request that you consider requiring the wearing of N95 masks on campus, mandatory COVID testing as well as an aggressive campaign to ensure that all campus community members are vaccinated as soon as possible," Ortiz wrote.

Universities moved courses online and shut down campuses in March 2020 as the pandemic hit the state. But ahead of the current school year, the Board of Governors announced plans for normal "pre-pandemic" operations for all universities.

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"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 letter Wednesday from Kitson and Criser did not address athletic and social activities heading into the spring semester.