TALLAHASSEE — Governor Ron DeSantis thinks students who attend Florida’s 12 state universities should be able to socialize without worrying about getting thrown out of school.
To that end, DeSantis said Thursday he’s willing to consider a college students’ “bill of rights” that would preclude state universities from taking actions against students who are enjoying themselves.
The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions about when he might issue the “bill of rights” or whether it would be done through an executive order.
Trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Florida State University announced last week that it would suspend students who attend or host large gatherings on or off campus. Also, it said it would suspend students who test positive for COVID-19 but don’t isolate themselves.
“I personally think it’s incredibly draconian that a student would get potentially expelled for going to a party,” DeSantis said Thursday. “That’s what college kids do.”
After shutting down campuses in March as the pandemic hit the state, universities spent months working on plans to reopen for the fall semester and to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
But schools such as Florida State have drawn attention as pictures of crowds of students at places such as pools and a football game have become public.
In what was described as an “urgent call to action,” FSU President John Thrasher last week warned that “students who endanger the community with actions such as hosting or attending a large party or gathering will be subject to suspension.”
Additionally, Thrasher’s message warned students they could face suspension if they test positive for COVID-19 and don’t isolate. “Socializing outside of your residence, working out at the Leach Center (gym) or engaging in activities such as going to parties may result in your suspension from Florida State University for a minimum of one academic semester,” the message said.
DeSantis’ remarks Thursday came at a news conference about health issues in Tallahassee. The event included DeSantis meeting with three scientists: Stanford University professors Michael Levitt and Jayanta Bhattacharya and Harvard University Professor Martin Kulldorff.
Kulldorf said universities should operate almost normally except that older professors should teach classes online and that teaching assistants could appear in person to help students. He also maintained that as a matter of policy, college students shouldn’t be tested for COVID-19 because they are young and won’t succumb to the virus.
“Students should be on campus. They should go. If they get sick, they should maybe stay in the dorm room until they are well if they have a cough,” he said. “Colleges should operate more or less normally.”
Responding to a question from DeSantis, Bhattacharya said he didn’t think a policy like Florida State’s would be effective.
“Opening up so that they can act like normal college students makes complete sense,” Bhattacharya said.
“Why would you prevent that? And in fact, there’s a harm on the other side of that as well,” he said, adding that isolating young people will adversely impact their mental health. “These kinds of policies … are unnatural and are going to result in psychological harm. And I think the colleges and the universities have an obligation to respect that, especially given the fact that the kids themselves face so low risk from COVID. They face a higher risk, I think, from the psychological harm that comes from the lockdown policies that many colleges have imposed.”
As of a Thursday count, Florida had 693,040 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started, state health department data show.
The University of Florida COVID-19 dashboard Thursday showed the school has had 702 students and 52 staff members test positive. FSU reported on its COVID-19 dashboard that it has had 1,835 positive students and 270 positive employees.