More details emerge on plans to reopen Florida's universities

A week after the state university system’s Board of Governors laid out a blueprint for how to reopen campuses in the fall, school officials are offering more details about what will change when students and faculty members come back.

The 12 state universities continue to work on plans, which they are supposed to present June 23 to the Board of Governors. The plans will flesh out details about issues such as student housing, academics, health protocols and athletics.

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In the meantime, new details emerging this week could quell anxiety among students who have been wondering what is in store for them after being sent home in March to try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

At Florida State University, for example, students with housing contracts were told on Monday that they should expect a number of adjustments to on-campus living when they are assigned to rooms in July.

The school, for example, will not assign triple or quadruple dorm rooms during the fall semester. Some games will not be available in residence halls. There will be no ice machines or microwaves in common kitchens. And students will be expected to wear face masks when gathering in lobbies, lounges and other public spaces.

“We also cannot guarantee you the full semester will be open for residential living. This again will be based on the campus decisions to provide the best conditions possible for healthy living,” FSU officials said in an email to students, obtained by The News Service of Florida.

The email added: “If the academic calendar availability is adjusted, the semester rental rate for on-campus halls and Seminole Dining plans will not be adjusted.”

University of Florida officials have already announced they will start the fall semester a week late on Aug. 31. But they are also proposing changes to the tail end of the semester.

During a UF Board of Trustees conference call on Thursday, officials said students may be given the option to finish the semester at home after the Thanksgiving break.

“We do not want to actually tell our students to go home because that, frankly, will open up the university to requests for tuition refunds,” Provost Joseph Glover said during the call.

The university’s draft reopening plan, released on Monday, notes that students and faculty members returning to classrooms will be required to wear face masks. The university will also put in place a coronavirus testing and screening program.

“Every single student is going to go through a screening test, which is an online series of questions that we’ve developed,” David Nelson, UF’s senior vice president for health affairs, said while noting the university will be looking for symptomatic or high-risk individuals.

Students flagged after the screening tests will get telehealth visits to determine if they need to be tested for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Students who are part of a “clinical setting,” including researchers, medical and pharmacy students, will also be required to be tested, Nelson said.

The university does not plan to test every student at the university. However, Nelson said the school will try to offer tests to people who express concerns about exposure to the virus.

Rather than conducting widespread testing, UF officials are looking at sampling the wastewater coming out of each dorm room in an effort to do more targeted testing.

“This typically has been used as an epidemiological tool to understand how much infection is sitting in a county or town,” Nelson said. “Here, we are going to flip this, and we’re going to try and figure out which dorms have a positive spike.”

If a “positive spike” is detected in a dorm, school and health officials would then offer targeted tests to the students living there.

FSU and UF officials on Thursday also addressed a pressing issue for sports fans across the state: Will college athletics return in the fall?

“Right now we are planning to begin seasons on time and play a full slate of contests. That’s right now. Whether this happens, obviously, will be determined by people far smarter than I and at a far higher pay grade than mine,” FSU Athletics Director David Coburn said.

Coburn said the university has started testing college football players for COVID-19. 

UF Athletics Director Scott Stricklin said his department will be “as patient as possible” on making decisions that will affect athletes and the football season. Decisions about the football season will be made with “the latest information,” likely around early or mid-August, he said.

“We are preparing as though we will play athletic events as scheduled in the 2020-21 school year. And the goal, along those lines, is to accommodate as many fans as our health leadership deems appropriate,” Stricklin said.