A student in Indiana tested positive for COVID-19 hours into their first day back at school, while another student in Georgia was suspended for sharing photos of crowded school hallways (1-2). Within two weeks of reopening, dozens of people have tested positive or been asked to quarantine after coming into contact with positive cases at schools in Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, and more (3). After so much evidence that reopening schools in person has a harmful impact on surrounding communities, how can the administrators at Florida Polytechnic University, the Board of Trustees, and the Board of Governors believe that any in-person reopening plan can be responsible? This lack of consideration for the lives of others is apparent in administrators’ plans to open dorms to design capacity, the lack of provided testing as students arrive on campus, and the university’s inability to test asymptomatic students, faculty, or staff on campus (4-7). Florida Polytechnic University’s plan for reopening ends at asking community members to “commit to protecting myself, protecting others, and protecting the Phoenix community” (8). That commitment needs to start with the administration.
While students, faculty, and staff are being provided with a symptom screening assessment, temperatures are not checked until community members have already entered shared spaces (4). Even if symptom screening and temperature checks were bulletproof protective measures, screening for temperature once in a shared space is too late (9). A temperature reader model matching the description given by the university costs $700 each (4,10-11). Providing each community member with a basic oral thermometer that can be used at home would cost less than purchasing just two of the advanced temperature readers (12). Even with a skeleton crew of admissions staff on campus, some employees have already been asked to quarantine twice after coming into contact with people who later tested positive. Thankfully, one of those positive cases was later found to be a false positive. But we won’t always be so lucky. With so many more people coming to campus once Poly opens their doors, the virus will inevitably be brought to campus and spread among the community.
With under ten days until the first wave of students begin to move into the dorms, Residential Life and Coastal Ridge Real Estate had yet to publish their living guidelines for this academic year. The guidelines were delayed because Coastal Ridge needed to approve them (13). It is not in Coastal Ridge’s best interest to release these guidelines before the last possible moment because once the guidelines are available, students will be able to use the limited living conditions outlined to get out of the lease that they signed in December or January. With just over eight days until students begin to move in, Coastal Ridge released a lease addendum that would allow students to move into dorms to match the updated start date of classes. However, this addendum also strips students of their right to dorm amenities such as the pool, fitness center, ping pong tables, and more. It also prohibits any person who does not live in the dorms from entering the dorms. This includes students who live off-campus and wish to study with students on campus in a common area. So far, students have not been let out of their leases unless they withdraw from the University, even if they cite fears over contracting COVID-19 as their reason for wanting to break the lease. When students have requested to break their lease, they have been informed that unless students “provide written documentation from their doctor directly to Student Living stating that the resident currently has a condition that the CDC has determined,” are high-risk individuals. This means that Coastal Ridge acknowledges that living in their dorms presents a risk to student welfare but is unwilling to prevent deaths. Coastal Ridge should not need to be reminded that over a third of all cases are between the ages of 18 and 34 and that it is not impossible for a younger person to die from the virus (26). While unrelated, this is especially insulting as students were led to believe they were signing an intent to renew their room so that Coastal Ridge could gauge interest with returning students, while Coastal Ridge actually presented them with a new lease. This left students locked into a lease that they don’t want, had no intention of signing, and have no way to break.
In addition, those students who live on campus must pay for a meal plan through Chartwells, the operator of on-campus dining (19). In order to stay safe, Chartwells will be implementing a similar symptom screening process for their employees and enforcing mask-wearing, among other measures (20). However, they are not testing employees (20). These employees will be making the food that people eat, they will be serving diners, and they will be moving around the dining hall to sanitize touch surfaces, all with the bare minimum done to make sure that they don’t contract and spread COVID-19 (20).
Many community members do want to return to campus, but at the same time, many don’t. While some students have the option to attend classes entirely online, faculty and staff must be granted special permission for high-risk individuals to shift their work to remote (7). Polk County has reported one-tenth of its total coronavirus cases in the past seven days (14). With a turnaround time of well over a week, test results are useless as they only show infection rates from when the tests were conducted more than a week prior (15-18). These same concerns were shared in a faculty union letter sent to the university president and provost, Drs Randy Avent and Terry Parker, in which union president Patrick Luck stated that “Statistically, it is inevitable that we will have many people on campus spreading the virus from the very first day of class” (25).
When the possibility of moving the fall semester to an entirely online format and releasing students from their dorm leases was brought up at a recent reopening plan meeting, Dr. Kathryn Miller, Vice Provost of Student Affairs, called those measures extreme. Nearly 40% of public four-year universities have moved to primarily online or fully online programs (24). It should go without saying that living in a pandemic is an extreme circumstance and calls for extreme measures to ensure that COVID-19 does not spread.
Should a community member contract the virus, they will have had that time to spread the virus throughout the community. When a member of the Phoenix Family dies from COVID-19, the school administrators need to know that it is their utter lack of leadership and arrogance in their belief that they can control the pandemic that caused a preventable death. The best way for Florida Polytechnic University to uphold its mission to serve students, and by extension, the rest of the Phoenix Community, is to admit that their current reopening plan needs to be changed to an online-only system like so many other schools have done (21-23).
- Dr. Kathryn Miller, Vice Provost of Student Affairs in a meeting on Monday, August 3
Articles and letters in opinion represent the views of the author are not representative of those of the publication.