State universities won’t mandate masks

Librarians Kim Drexel, right, and Michael Sunio, left, wear masks in this June 2020 file photo. With a spike in COVID-19 cases recently, the question of mask mandates is again being debated. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 
TALLAHASSEE – State universities are staying on track for a return to normal “pre-pandemic” operations as the fall semester approaches, while Florida grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Classes begin Aug. 23 for most universities. While universities remain poised to keep mask-wearing optional and discontinue limits on the numbers of people in classrooms, they are encouraging students, faculty and staff members to get vaccinated.

Most universities began publishing plans for a return to normalcy around the time the university system’s Board of Governors issued guidance in May.

“The State University System of Florida is pleased to announce that all 12 public universities expect to increase classroom occupancy to pre-COVID capacity by the 2021-22 academic year and return to pre-COVID operations,” the Board of Governors said in a May 5 news release. “Further, we anticipate returning to full in-person participation in athletic and social activities on our campuses, including fan participation in stadiums and arenas.”

The University of Florida’s plan, published on May 17, was titled, “Transition to normal campus operations.” The advisory spelled out that the campus will return to “pre-pandemic classroom capacity,” a change that took effect during the summer term. The university also approved full in-person participation for athletics, including fan attendance.

It also detailed a mask-optional policy for people on campus, attributed to “recently released national guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and “in concert with the State University System.”

But the guidance from the Board of Governors and the plans published by the universities came before the surge in cases in recent weeks, largely driven by the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The increase in cases has led to hospitals filling up with COVID-19 patients and local officials trying to curb the spread of the virus. For instance, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings declared a local state of emergency Wednesday and ordered vaccinations for county employees.

The CDC issued new guidelines Tuesday advising that all people, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear masks in schools and areas of “substantial or high” transmission.

On Thursday, a University of Florida spokesman told The News Service of Florida that the university wouldn’t reverse course on masks or the number of people allowed in classrooms.

“Masks are optional, and we recommend those not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to continue wearing them. We will continue to monitor the progress of the pandemic, both locally and nationally and are always prepared to modify our approach if conditions warrant,” said Steve Orlando, UF’s assistant vice president for communications.

The Board of Governors did not answer a question from the News Service about whether it plans to issue new guidance ahead of the fall semester. Its next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 31.

Posted in Education, News

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