Despite recent surge of COVID-19 cases, FIU plans to resume in-person classes in the fall

Florida International University Tuesday approved a three-phase blueprint to resume on-campus classes for the fall

Florida International University Tuesday approved a three-phase blueprint to resume on-campus classes for the fall semester, with the first step being that all students, faculty and staff will have to answer COVID-19 related questions on an FIU-built app before returning to the university’s two campuses.

FIU’s board of trustees approved the measures, which the Florida Board of Governors would have to approve during its June 23 meeting, along with the plans submitted by each of the 11 other state universities.

The FIU team met “almost every other day since April 18” to draft the guidelines, basing them on a set of recommendations the Board of Governors passed along after its May 28 meeting, according to FIU Provost Kenneth Furton.

However, the plan is still a “living document” and could change depending on how the coronavirus develops in the state. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been on the rise in Florida, with the state reporting on Tuesday 2,783 new confirmed coronavirus cases, a single-day record. It was the fourth time in six days that the state reported a record number of cases.

The university is still getting feedback from the community, holding town hall meetings with faculty and others to discuss safety concerns.

Much like what other higher education institutions have announced across the country, FIU’s plan, called “Panthers Protecting Panthers,” relies heavily on the screening of symptoms, testing and tracing of contacts.

The university will require its students, faculty and staff to answer a litany of questions on the FIU-built app before returning to campus. From then on, daily completion of the self-reporting assessment through the app will be required.

Anyone with symptoms will get tested. According to the plan, students, faculty and staff may get tested “through area providers and other county sites.” Additionally, FIU is trying to implement in-house testing by seeking certification for two on-campus labs. The pricing and timeline for that initiative are unclear.

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FIU has set aside 65 single-story apartments to allow students who live on campus to relocate and quarantine there if necessary. The university will work with government officials to track the contacts of any infected person.

How do the phases work?

Although FIU included three phases in its reopening plan, the university can move forward to the next phase or return to the previous one if necessary, as epidemiologists track the virus on campus, Furton said.

Phase 1 calls for “a limited number of employees” who don’t have preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus to slowly return to in-person work. Phase 1 would begin when the Florida Department of Health data indicate a 14-day downward trajectory of positive cases of COVID-19 in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Furton said “it’s essentially what we’re moving into right now.” However, a recent Miami Herald investigation found cases have been rising in the state since mid-May.

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Phase 2 would be launched when “there is a sustainable 14-day downward trajectory of new cases per day, and … the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests are in the single digits in SE FL (Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade counties),” according to the plan.

Phase 3 will begin when the state data indicate “there is little to no community spread per the number of cases reported, no evidence of a resurgence of cases, and robust testing and contact tracing is widely available in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.”

Phase 3, the final phase, or “new normal,” would allow for nearly all employees to start working on site and for students to return to campus with some measures in place.

FIU did not say whether it was changing its academic calendar. Many schools have moved up their start dates so students would not have to return after Thanksgiving, reducing the risk of the virus from travel.

Social distancing and masks: ‘new normal’

Social distancing and mandatory facial coverings, the latter required when “there is a possibility of not being at least six feet away from another person,” are two other cornerstones of FIU’s reopening plan. The university will provide a reusable cloth covering to students, faculty and staff upon their return.

An educational campaign will also be vital, Furton said, to prepare people before they return to the facilities. FIU plans to release videos and materials teaching the public how to wear a mask properly, how to wash your hands thoroughly and how to maintain physical distance from others.

The campaign will also show people how the campus has changed. Signage has been put up already, he said, and protective shields have been installed in highly trafficked areas like the Graham Center.

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The plan also accounts for learning modifications. Before, FIU offered about 50% of its courses in person, 37% online and 13% hybrid. Now courses will be 21% face-to-face, 37% online, 13% hybrid and 29% “synchronous remote,” which means at the same time but not in the same place.

To choose which classes would be taught in person, FIU prioritized those that cannot be deferred for another term, and those in which remote learning doesn’t make sense. Second priority went to intro and first-time-in-college critical courses.

Furton said Monday the task force doesn’t plan to focus too much on enforcement. “We just have to be clear these are the rules, and you’re going to follow the rules if you want to return to campus,” he said.

Employees will be disciplined by supervisors, while the student conduct code will address students’ misbehavior, according to the plan.

All student extracurricular activities, including club meetings, intramural sports and social gatherings, will need to comply with the new rules. The Student Government Association and Greek organizations plan to hold all large events virtually throughout the fall and smaller events in person.

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