Ahad Aziz had his plane ticket ready.
Like every other semester, he’d be flying from his home in Oregon to start school at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
Then, just a few weeks before takeoff, he found out he didn’t make the cut.
Last week, Florida Southern College announced it was changing its reopening plan to limit density on campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The change has led students like Aziz to feel abandoned by the institution.
“When I got the email, I felt hopeless and betrayed by the school,” he said. “I guess it makes sense. But still, I don’t think it’s fair to have certain people live on campus while there are other people who benefit from in-class learning. Like me, I can’t really do virtual learning.”
In July, the college released a detailed plan outlining steps it had taken to open school safely, including enhanced social distancing, regular sanitization of facilities and remote learning. Aziz was still set to move into his on-campus apartment and resume his job in the school’s admission office where he works to buy groceries and save for graduate school. So he bought the ticket.
Then, on Aug.10, the school announced the plan had to change as Florida saw a spike in COVID-19 cases. Changes included limiting density by offering housing only to new students and certain majors.
“We listened to the medical experts,” Vice President of Communications and Marketing Grant Heston said. “It just determined, with the conditions the way they were, we need to go to a lower density model.”
Heston said the pains being felt by students and the challenges faced by schools are seen across the country. Earlier this week, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reversed course and announced it wouldn’t hold in-person classes on campus after about 130 students tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week since classes began.
“This was not an easy decision,” Heston said. “But it’s the right decision. And I think as we’ve seen colleges and universities just this week struggle with reopening at full capacity, you’re seeing why the decision was made.”
Like Aziz, who double majors in hospital administration and psychology, student Robert McLaughlin feels left out. He’s able to commute, but since density is limited, he said, so are his learning options. He’s loved his first two years, but now feels disappointed and disillusioned at what the future holds.
“As an economist, I can say wholeheartedly that the 50, $55,000 a year that Florida Southern is charging their students to learn online is not worth it,” McLaughlin said. “If it weren’t for the immense number of friends that I have at Florida Southern and the attachments that I’ve made with these people, I would have moved colleges.”
McLaughlin, who majors in economics and political science, said in-person learning and school facilities are as important to him as some of the other majors prioritized over his. He worries the school is saving money with its new plan versus a costly reopening plan. Florida Southern College’s Heston said that’s not the case.
“Florida Southern College has invested millions in making sure that this campus will be as healthy and prepared as possible for students to return” he said. “From personal protective equipment to cleaning supplies, to physical distancing changes, all of those things. We’re doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do for students and our faculty and staff.”
Heston said his heart is with students like McLaughlin and Aziz, but tough choices had to be made. Aziz said he just hopes he’ll be able to return to school in the spring or, in the least, will know with enough time to plan if he won’t.
“Take this time to ensure that there isn’t an outbreak on campus, Aziz said. And ensure that everyone can come back to campus in the spring. And maybe not wait until the last second to let us know.”
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