The heads of some Florida universities are reminding students and faculty that campus leaders’ “hands are tied” when it comes to taking steps to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 and are trying to work around limitations as the academic year is underway.
However, it appears unlikely that university presidents will get increased authority to move forward with stricter COVID-19 policies.
The state university system’s Board of Governors, which will hold meetings Tuesday and Wednesday at Florida International University, is not slated to discuss campus COVID-19 measures. A spokeswoman for the board confirmed Monday to the News Service of Florida that “there is nothing on the agenda related to that topic.”
Universities planned a return to “normal operations” for this academic year before the Delta variant of the coronavirus began causing cases, hospitalizations and deaths to surge in Florida. Now, university presidents are facing pressure on campus from people calling for stricter measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“One of the things that I think is a misunderstanding by the community is, they believe I have the authority to mandate masks and vaccinations, and I don’t. I don't have that authority,” Florida State University President Richard McCullough said during a meeting of the university’s trustees on Friday.
A day earlier, Graduate Assistants United, a union of Florida State University graduate assistants, led a small march through campus to demand more-stringent measures.
“We are aware that executive orders on masks and actual law about vaccines means that we cannot mandate either of those. But there’s other options, and we would like people to pick from those sensible options,” said Roxie Brookshire, the union’s president.
Brookshire said those other options include regular COVID-19 tests, flexible classes with online options in addition to in-person instruction, and remote work for employees.
McCullough, who took over as Florida State’s president this month, said Friday that the system’s Board of Governors has the final say on what can be mandated for universities.
“I could mandate it, and as soon as I mandated it, the next day it would be unmandated. So, I work for the state of Florida in some sense,” McCullough said.
Without being able to mandate vaccines and masks, universities have pivoted to stronger language in their recommendations that students wear masks, including most now saying masks are “expected” on campus.
McCullough said at FSU, which this year welcomed its largest freshman class in history, an increased push for vaccinations has led to a “small but significant” uptick in students rolling up their sleeves to get the jab.
University of Florida President Kent Fuchs detailed the same limitations Thursday in a “state of the university” address to the Faculty Senate.
“We do not have the authority to mandate the vaccine for our students and employees, we do not have the authority to require everyone to wear a mask indoors, and we no longer have the authority to move our classes online,” Fuchs said in the address.
Like McCullough, Fuchs said students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida will have to take it upon themselves to employ measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Given our constraints, I am optimistic that our university community, UF’s students, faculty and staff will understand the importance of voluntarily doing what we cannot require and that is to get the shot and wear the mask,” Fuchs said.
Some faculty at state universities have taken notice of county school boards enacting mask mandates — going against the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis and top state education officials — and have asked the universities to do the same.
Robert Cassanello, president of the United Faculty of Florida union at the University of Central Florida, raised the issue to the Orlando university’s board of trustees during an Aug. 19 meeting.
“We would like to follow the brave school boards of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties who have defied mask policies in the state and defied the governor,” Cassanello said.
The number of local school boards that have enacted mask mandates contrary to DeSantis’ and top state education officials’ direction has grown to 10.
But McCullough during Friday’s trustees meeting said FSU is not in a position to depart from the Board of Governors’ guidelines.
“We are not in the same position as some of the school boards and local schools are. We’re in a different position than that. So essentially our hands are tied in some way. So in some sense, the pleas that you make to the administration and the board of trustees — I’m glad you’re making those pleas and we will fight for you, I promise. But we don’t have the full authority to take some of these things on,” McCullough said.
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