Is it possible? College sophomores and juniors might be squeezed out of campus dorms and traditional instruction

Florida State University's Jennie Murphree Hall. Credit: FSU, University Housing website.

On-campus housing at Florida’s public universities could undergo a drastic face-lift in the fall, with residence halls limited to certain classes of students, according to draft recommendations from a key higher education group.

Committee members are exploring the idea of reserving on-campus housing for freshmen, seniors, and graduate students. They also suggested that on-campus living be placed off limits to sophomores and juniors as universities begin to reopen in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Florida Education Association (FEA) and the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), both unions,  set up committees to work out ways to get K-12 and universities up and running in the new academic year, though it’s clear that campus life will be different than in the past.

The groups will roll out recommendations for K-12 schools Tuesday; and for higher education on Wednesday. The recommendations will be presented to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, among others.

The higher education committee indicated during a recent Zoom meeting that sophomores and juniors would need to use remote learning rather than regular classroom instruction. That raises questions about what college will look like if large numbers of sophomores and juniors aren’t part of the student population.

The recommendations aren’t final and would only apply to certain colleges “in order to cut down how many students need to be on campus,” UFF President Karen Morian said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“A small school like FAMU (Florida A&M University) may be able to make it work,” Morian said. FAMU had a total of 9,617 students enrolled in the fall of 2019, university data show.

“Allow entering freshmen to live on campus to better integrate to college life; allow seniors and graduate students to live on-campus to be mentored by faculty as they complete their degrees,” the committee wrote in a document of recommendations.

The group also wrote under “further suggestions” that “sophomores and juniors would be on-line only,” suggesting they would continue distance learning and not be able to attend classes on campus, if the recommendations are adopted by certain universities.

“Sophomores and juniors are working at finishing their general requirements … so that independence is really a key thing if you’re asking students to do it online,” Morian explained.

The final draft, listing a variety of recommendations and new policies that coincide with safety precautions at colleges, will be offered to universities to assist with their individual reopening plans.

Officials said these recommendations are subject to change.

And the committee toyed with the idea of creating “living learning communities,” where students would be placed in on-campus residential halls based on their majors or academic departments. No other details were provided about the proposal.

“At FAMU, we have living learning communities, which are about 14, depending on their major, and they are housed per floor in different buildings,” Jairus Williams, a FAMU student and committee member, said in the Zoom meeting last week.

The Phoenix reached out to several public colleges to address concerns about crowded living quarters on campuses that could pose a threat to students because of COVID-19.

New College of Florida, in Sarasota, plans to limit the number of people living in rooms in residence halls on its campus, said spokeswoman Ann Comer-Woods.

“Students will not be placed in triples [three beds in one room], and wherever possible, we will eliminate doubles [two beds in one room]. Students will move back to campus in stages to limit the number of people who are gathered in any one place on campus at one time,” Comer-Woods said of plans for the fall.

Meanwhile, the unions continue to push for more say on universities’ individual plans for reopening campuses.

The press was only invited to attend the first and final meetings on K-12 and university reopenings, raising concerns about transparency as students and families try to adjust to a new norm for public schools during COVID-19. Here is a previous Florida Phoenix report on the issue.

In late April, the FEA reached out to Education Commissioner Corcoran to convene “two inclusive committees on reopening schools” but he has yet to respond about formation of committees, according to the FEA.

In addition, the Florida Board of Governors has been looking at reopening universities and  recently approved a blueprint addressing on-campus housing. The document said universities must designate areas on campus such as rooms or building sections “that will be suitable for isolating positive virus cases until they are no longer infectious.”

“Resources should be made available to provide care, counseling, and other services to these individuals and include the ability for quarantined students to continue their studies,” the blueprint said.