College has become a quandary as COVID-19 complicates upcoming holidays and spring semester

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

As the first fall semester of college classes wrap up in a COVID-19 world, an unclear narrative has emerged on how Florida colleges and universities should function for the remaining fall semester and the upcoming 2021 spring semester.

The complicated issues revolve around the benefits or downfalls of online or in-person instruction, pushback from faculty against more in-person classes and students traveling home over the holidays, which could lead to COVID-19 infections.

Many campuses have chosen to finish in-person instruction by Thanksgiving break, expecting students to finish their classes online for the rest of the semester. For other schools, that’s not a requirement.

Other institutions have already decided to cancel spring break in 2021 to deter students from traveling and causing a surge in COVID cases.

At the same time, some of those same campuses are planning to include more face-to-face classes in the spring semester, compared to the fall, which might exacerbate the COVID situation.

A survey by The New York Times shows more than 13,000 cases of COVID-19 related to 87 of Florida’s colleges and universities since early March. And those numbers could be even higher.

“With no national tracking system, and statewide data available only sporadically, colleges are making their own rules for how to tally infections,” the Times reported on Nov. 5. “While the Times’ survey is believed to be the most comprehensive account available, it is also an undercount.”

As it stands now, Florida’s 13,650 cases at colleges and universities represent the second highest number of COVID infections since March. Texas had the highest number — more than 20,000 cases, according to the New York Times.

Since September 6, the Florida Department of Health has released it’s own weekly reports on COVID-19 in Florida schools, including colleges and universities.

In this week’s state data, the health department reported 625 new COVID-19 cases from Nov. 1 through Nov. 7. The overall data since Sept. 6 shows at least 6,443 cases for Florida college campuses. That includes students, teachers, staff and other cases. The student figure was the highest, at 5,971 infections.

The last stretch of the 2020 fall semester 

Will campuses be open past Thanksgiving break? It depends on which college or university a student attends.

Florida State University in the state capital will be sending students back home for Thanksgiving break, and classes will shift to remote learning for the rest of the semester – meaning classes and final exams will be online.

Bill Wellock, a communications spokesperson at FSU, told the Phoenix in an email that traveling risks were the reason for the decision.

“As FSU continues its efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Wellock said, “this adjustment reduces the potential for members of the campus community to return to Tallahassee with the virus after traveling for the holiday.”

Other colleges and universities have a similar mindset about Thanksgiving break.

University of Miami will have its last day of in-person instruction on Nov. 20, which is the last Friday before Thanksgiving.

UM’s website also sites concerns about COVID-19 exposure over the holidays, saying that, “The revised academic calendar enables students to travel home for the Thanksgiving holiday and not return to campus again until the spring semester, thereby limiting the frequency of travel and potential for virus transmission and spread.”

Miami-Dade County has the highest number of COVID-19 infections in Florida — close to 200,000, according to state health data.

Whether a student returns to campus after Thanksgiving break may also depend on the professor, as is the case for the University of Florida in Gainesville.

In a conversation with the Phoenix, Brittany Wise, communications director for UF, shared that the university is encouraging professors to move online after the break, but it’s not a requirement.

Regarding Thanksgiving break, UF’s website says that “Faculty are encouraged to shift their classes to an online format after the holiday to give students the option to stay home if they so choose. Most courses will not have a face-to-face requirement after Thanksgiving, but some will.”

Spring semester may bring more face-to-face classes

Several colleges and universities have cancelled spring break for spring semester in 2021 – again, citing travel and COVID-19 exposures.

Yet, some schools expect to host more face-to-face classes on campuses than in the 2020 fall semester.

Florida State University’s website says that the university “is committed to offering as many face-to-face classes as possible while maintaining the safety of students, faculty, and staff.”

University of Central Florida, located in Orange County, updated their students on Nov. 6, saying: “We are planning for a spring semester with more face-to-face classes because we know they are critical to our students’ academic success.”

AT UF, a faculty union is pushing back against the institution’s reopening plans to increase face-to-face instruction in the upcoming semester.

In an October COVID update, UF president Kent Fuchs said that the next step for UF is to “significantly increase the opportunity for students to experience in-person, face-to-face learning.”

“Our students deserve this opportunity,” Fuchs said in the update. “More importantly, we have learned over the past several months how to keep our faculty, staff and students as safe as possible with in-person teaching and learning.”

But some UF faculty disagree with the push for more in-person classes, and UF’s faculty union filed a grievance over the matter, asking administrators to “cease and desist,” according to The Gainesville Sun.

The union complaint says that faculty who had hoped to continue teaching remotely in the upcoming semester are facing difficulties receiving accommodations, the newspaper reported.