January 18, 2022

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Pence visits University of Miami for launch of phase III vaccine trial amid dispute over in-person teaching

MIAMI — Vice President Mike Pence visited Florida on Monday to tout the University of Miami’s role in coronavirus vaccine testing, even as professors there have expressed concerns about being forced to return to classes in person amid surging numbers of cases in the state. 

Pence participated in a roundtable and press briefing to discuss the beginning of the first phase III trials for a U.S. coronavirus vaccine developed by Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna. The trial will consist of 89 sites, including the University of Miami, with more than 30,000 participants.

The roundtable, held at the university’s Miller School of Medicine, featured Pence, FDA Commissioner Steven Hahn and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who used his time to tout the effectiveness of the state’s response to the rise in COVID-19 cases, even though he has been widely blamed for that surge by moving forward too quickly with reopening the state. 

Vice President Mike Pence, with Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Vice President Mike Pence, with Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Yet even with cases in the state still at record highs, the debate in Florida over when and how to reopen is still playing out, including at the University of Miami. The university is at the center of a public dispute between its administration, that is arguing for in-person teaching, and faculty and staff who say they are being forced to return to the classroom without regard to risk. 

Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, chair of the modern languages and literature department at the university, told Yahoo News that the university’s involvement in the Moderna trials “is indeed an important development,” but emphasized that “it is important to keep in the news the fact that the UM administration is planning to open the campus for face-to-face teaching in less than a month,” and has decided to do so without taking the faculty into consideration. 

During their appearance on Monday, Pence and DeSantis didn’t address the issues at the university, but were asked about students returning to public schools in the fall. Both men emphasized their belief that the risk of coronavirus to young children is low, and Pence claimed that the cost to students’ education from remote classes is too steep to ignore. 

“One thing we know for sure is that the risk of the coronavirus to healthy kids is very low,” Pence said. “The other we know for sure is there are real costs to children for not being in the classroom.”

Mike Pence, right, with Ron DeSantis. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Mike Pence, right, with Ron DeSantis. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

At the university, however, the question is not over children, but young adults, among whom cases are spiking and are regarded as major spreaders. Despite these trends, the University of Miami is moving forward with plans to require faculty to teach in-person.

“There is no shared process of consultation and decision making, and the administration has characterized the concerns of the faculty as putting individual concerns ahead of the collective good,” Martínez-San Miguel said. “The end result of these meetings is that the administration explains why UM is opening in the fall to teach face-to-face, and the fears and concerns of the faculty are dismissed because supposedly they are not based on data and evidence.”

Martínez-San Miguel noted the fact that K-12 schools may not open in Miami-Dade County due to the recent rise in cases, and warned that “the university has no clear plan [for] employees who are parents and need to take care of the children who would be home.” 

While promoting the university’s work in vaccine development is commendable, she said, the concerns of faculty and staff about their safety shouldn’t be ignored. 

“It would be a great irony,” Martínez-San Miguel claims, “that the same university that gets this visibility with its participation in trials for a vaccine that could offer immunity against COVID would end up becoming one of the campuses with an outbreak this fall.”

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