Colleges and universities are under pressure to reopen, but bringing students back on campus safely means dealing with dizzying logistics. As the virus surges in Miami, a large commuter campus gets ready.
Gerard Albert III spent a lot of time on his porch this summer doing whatever he could to keep a little more distance between himself and his abuelita, hoping to keep her safe from Covid-19 as it spread rapidly through Miami. Albert, 20, graduated in May from Florida International University but stayed on as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper through the summer because the incoming editor was stuck in Spain due to the pandemic. From his porch, on Zoom and WhatsApp, he continued to lead a team of student reporters and editors covering the big story: FIU’s plan to reopen in late August.
“FIU faces a weird predicament because we’re in pretty much the epicenter of the state for the outbreak,” Albert said.
Like other campuses across the country, FIU moved classes online in March, but by April, Florida’s 12 public colleges and universities had begun drafting plans to reopen in the fall. Gov. Ron DeSantis included universities as part of his plan to reopen Florida.
FIU faced a particularly daunting task. With nearly 58,000 students and 10,000 staff, it’s one of the largest universities in the country. And it’s primarily a commuter school. Sixty percent of FIU’s students are Hispanic.
“Something special about Miami is the multi-generational households,” Albert said. “That's just a Hispanic culture thing, Latino culture thing, is that you don't only live with your mom and dad or very, very rarely by yourself, especially in Miami with the rent.” Albert cited his own family as an example. “So I could see some people not wanting to come back just for fear of spreading it to their families.”
FIU is counting on fewer students returning to campus. For one thing, it won’t have room for everyone. Large lecture halls have been reduced to 15 percent of their original seating capacity in the new socially distanced seating configuration. There are other precautions as well. Masks are required. Students and professors will clean their work surfaces with sanitizing wipes at the beginning and end of every class period.
“They have to follow the very strict protocols that we've developed,” Provost Ken Furton said. The university has a mandatory screening app. Anyone coming on campus has to answer questions about a list of symptoms, if they’ve been in close contact with someone potentially sick with Covid-19, and if they’ve been in an environment not following social distancing guidelines. Everyone has to complete it on their phones before coming to campus each day.
“I have to do that, the students have to do that, the faculty have to do that or else they're not welcome on campus,” Furton said. Those who refuse to use the app or are flagged to be at high risk are asked to study or work remotely.
Furton said the daily real-time data will help FIU identify possible virus outbreaks on campus. There’s testing, housing set aside for people who need to quarantine and contact tracing at the ready. The university can reduce capacity or return to remote mode if necessary.
One flashpoint across the country is whether faculty and instructors can be required to resume in-person teaching. Florida’s largest teachers union has sued to block the state from requiring elementary and secondary schools to reopen. At FIU, faculty union president Martha Meyer said faculty can choose whether to return to the classroom, teach online or teach a hybrid of in-person and online.
“Our argument has been faculty should not be compelled to return to campus if they have a health concern. Period, end of story,” said Meyer, who noted the FIU administration has been fully supportive.
So far, Furton said the proportion of faculty and students who want to stay remote is roughly equal. Meyer, who’s a senior instructor in Education Policy Studies, has requested to be back in the classroom training future teachers. “I feed off of that energy,” she said.
FIU is a research university and Furton is applying his own expertise as a scientist in the huge undertaking of safely reopening campus. For 20 years his chemistry lab has worked with dogs to detect drugs, explosives and even diseases. Now his lab is training dogs for a pilot study to detect areas that may have been contaminated by the coronavirus. He says dogs are mobile and highly sensitive and could play a key role in minimizing the spread.
“When it seems a little bit hopeless, you know, there’s a lot of hopeful things that are going on,” Furton said.