In a letter published in the Florida Times-Union this past Friday, more than 170 instructors from several state schools — including the University of North Florida (UNF), the University of Florida (UF), and FIU — urged the Florida Board of Governors, the body that oversees the State University System of Florida, to require masks and COVID-19 vaccines for students, faculty, and staff.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' prohibition on mask mandates and "vaccine passports" ostensibly prevents them from doing so.
They also asked for the flexibility to teach remotely when necessary, as faculty has been directed to return in-person starting today.
"Universities are places where faculty and students study ethics and moral philosophy. By implementing policies that fail to protect the lives of university students, faculty, and staff, we are showing that we have no ethical center and we place no moral value on the lives and well-being of people in our community," the letter states.
Martha Meyer, a professor and president of FIU's chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, says instructors are especially concerned that state universities are returning to normal amid Florida's record-breaking wave of COVID-19 cases and reports that the Delta variant is linked to more severe cases in younger people.
"Faculty are concerned for a variety of reasons: for their personal health, the health and well-being of people in their homes, their inability to space themselves out in a class," Meyer tells New Times. "We don't want to put ourselves at risk if we don't have to. We want to do what's in the best interest of our students, faculty, and our staff."
Meyer and five other FIU professors have signed the letter as of today, as the documents continues to garner support and signatures from across the state.
Beginning today at FIU, professors and students are expected to return to pre-COVID "modalities" — which means meeting face-to-face for most classes, according to the university's website.
According to a faculty document obtained by New Times, FIU professors are not allowed to offer Zoom attendance nor mandate social distancing.
Although messaging from the university "strongly encourages" students and faculty to get vaccinated and wear masks on campus, the school cannot require them to do so, owing to the governor's statewide prohibition on mask mandates and "vaccine passports."
At the University of Miami, a private institution not controlled by the Board of Governors, faculty are required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or risk termination. Students are strongly encouraged but not required to get a vaccine, but masks are mandated for everyone while indoors.
Last week, an advisory council of Florida faculty passed a resolution urging Governor DeSantis to return power to universities when it comes to COVID-19 protocols as cases continue to rise.
For Jennifer Lieberman, the UNF professor who authored the Board of Governors' letter, returning to a pre-COVID university world doesn't make sense right now. The day before Lieberman's letter was published, UNF faculty learned that a recent graduate from the university's English department had died from COVID-19-related symptoms.
"Things are worse and we still have to return to normal," Lieberman tells New Times. "This goes against everything universities exist for."