Faculty, students skeptical as UNC-Chapel Hill prepares to reopen in August

By: - May 28, 2020 2:04 pm
UNC-Chapel Hill Bell Tower. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

At the end of an hour-long question-and-answer session with UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, English professor Florence Dore said what many faculty were thinking about a planned return to campus Aug. 10.

“All the data suggest people are going to get sick,” Dore said. “I guess I just don’t understand why we’re not staying online until things improve.”

Guskiewicz had spent much of Wednesday’s online joint meeting of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee and Faculty Executive Committee touting a “road map” for a mass return to campus. The plan would likely be made public Thursday, he said, and  would include plans for social distancing in classes and common areas,  like cafeterias. It would also assume  that students, faculty and staff comply with best practices — wearing face masks — to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Professor Florence Dore

But he had repeatedly hedged on the question of how many people would have to fall ill for the UNC system’s flagship campus to take an “off-ramp” on its road to return. In such a scenario, UNC-Chapel Hill  would revert to the online instruction system it has practiced since March.

The university is working with its world-renowned health experts, Guskiewicz said. But there was no reliable model or “crystal ball,” to predict what would likely happen when the university’s 19,000 undergraduates, nearly 11,000 graduate and professional students, and almost 4,000 faculty return to campus.

Dore and a number of other faculty members were not satisfied with that answer.  “I think we must have some idea now of what is an acceptable level of infection and death, because that’s what we’re proceeding on the basis of,” Dore said. “We have quarantine dorms we’re setting up. “[Human Resources] is talking to us about new kinds of sick leave. We are preparing for illness.”

It was hard to take seriously the university’s talk about compassion for students, staff and faculty in the pandemic, Dore stated, when “we know we are going to be contributing to illness and probably death.”

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

UNC’s health experts are working with him to craft a plan, Guskiewicz  said, and feel it is safe to proceed. Health experts will monitor positive cases, and particularly clusters of infection, should they occur. There would be some flexibility for students, staff and faculty who don’t feel they can safely return to campus and in-person instruction, he added.

“There are many who feel that they need to come back and want to come back,” Guskiewicz said. “We want to provide those opportunities for those individuals if we can safely do that.”

“Big ‘if’,” Dore replied.

Guskiewicz seemed to bristle at the comment.

“That’s your opinion,” he said after a pause. “As I’ve said, we’re relying on the experts who have been studying this for many years.”

Risk and optimism

Dore is far from the only faculty member concerned about the safety and feasibility of a mass return to on-campus instruction.

Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine and research professor of psychiatry, said campus leaders need to look beyond statistics. “Why are we doing this?” Estroff asked. “What do we feel as a community of educators about our duty to take risks, to not take risks? I, for one, can’t imagine not being with students, but I have no idea how to teach with a mask on. If anybody here thinks they can be understood in a classroom with a mask on, you are better at it than me.”

Professor Sue Estroff

Nancy Fisher, a research professor in microbiology and immunology at UNC’s School of Medicine, said the Faculty Executive Committee will soon circulate a faculty survey to gauge sentiment about returning. She pointed to a USA Today poll, released this week, in which one-in-five K-12 teachers said they would not return to classrooms if their schools decided to reopen in the fall. Of K-12 parents surveyed, 60% said they are likely to pursue at-home learning options rather than send their children back to schools.

There are large differences between K-12 and university education, Fisher said, but university faculty are faced with the reality that college students are more likely than K-12 students to be commingling when not in class. They live in dormitories, socialize and work jobs that bring them into contact with the public.

Guskiewicz said the university will communicate its expectation that students practice safe social distancing, wear masks when they have to, and limit unnecessary travel. But he admitted that may not be enforceable as a strict guideline or part of the university’s honor code. “If a student is not following community standards is it a violation of the honor code?” Guskiewicz said. “We’re not there yet … I doubt we can even go in that direction.”

During North Carolina’s stay-at-home order, various communities handled enforcement differently. Most chose to adopt a hands-off approach in which people were warned but not cited or arrested for violations. But in some areas of the state, college students have repeatedly been cited for parties and large gatherings even while their campuses have been shut down.

Last month, the small college town of Elon reported it had cited 17 Elon University students for violations of the state stay-at-home order and the town’s own state of emergency declaration in a single month. The town of Elon’s population is only about 12,000, but the university enrolls about 7,000 students from 48 states and the District of Columbia, as well as international students from 47 nations.

UNC-Chapel Hill is one of a growing number of UNC System schools — including UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T — that are bringing students back to campus early, canceling fall break and reading days, and ending the semester before Thanksgiving. The aim is to limit the number of times masses of students leave campus, travel and then return — especially during the cold and flu season, which in the U.S. begins in October and can last as late as May. Health experts are predicting a spike in COVID-19 cases during the fall and winter, when various viruses benefit from both cool, dry temperatures and people’s tendency to gather in enclosed spaces.

Canceling breaks where possible is a smart move, said Daniel Mangrum, a recent graduate with a doctorate in economics from Vanderbilt University. He is the co-author of a recent paper examining the effects of early college spring breaks on this year’s COVID-19 outbreaks. The paper found greater community spread by students at universities that held earlier spring breaks, and where students  traveled and subsequently returned to campus. There were fewer infections in university communities with later spring breaks, which effectively had their breaks canceled.

“I think universities are making the right call in that regard — canceling fall breaks,” Mangrum said this week in an interview with Policy Watch. “With tailgating and travel — travel in and of itself is a bit risky, any time you are bringing a lot of people from different areas all to one place.”

It remains to be seen whether mass returns to campuses from students all over the country and the world will have the same effect, Mangrum said. It might depend on where the students are coming from and how serious they have been about social distancing.

Higher education often operates on a “follow the leader” mentality, Mangrum said. The recent trend toward bringing students back early and cutting short the fall semester  came after the University of Notre Dame in Indiana made that decision earlier this month. Mangrum said he expects colleges and universities across the country will likely follow the lead of the largest, most respected campuses in the country in reacting to new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Health, safety and the bottom line

While much of the discussion of the last few weeks has centered on safety, UNC leaders have been frank about another driving factor for the return to campus in the fall — the financial bottom line.

Last week UNC System Interim President Bill Roper told a UNC Board of Governors committee that the system’s business model simply doesn’t work unless students return to campus. UNC System schools have already been hit hard by the need to refund money students had paid for room and board, and other fees. Last week, the system’s board of governors voted on allocations for $44.4 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund created by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Schools reported additional expenses and lost revenues in the tens of millions of dollars.

UNC schools are also facing multiple lawsuits from students who say the switch to online education last semester diluted their college experience. For example, they were charged fees toward on-campus resources and experiences to which they had no access.

Members of the UNC Board of Governors have expressed concern that a large number of students, faced with the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic, may decide to take a gap year or continue to pursue online-only education.

At Wednesday’s meeting with faculty, Guskiewicz also addressed the financial need to get students back on campus. “Every revenue stream right now is threatened by this pandemic,” Guskiewicz said, from donations and receipts from book stores, athletic events and performances to tuition. “If we can provide on campus learning opportunities for as many students as possible, we believe our tuition revenue will not be impacted to the degree it could.”

Doctoral student James Sadler

A number of UNC-Chapel Hill students say they believe the financial motivation may be playing too large a role in the decision to return. “I can’t say that it surprises me, but it is disappointing,” said James Sadler, a doctoral student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education. “Unfortunately we’ve seen a number of times over the years that the health and safety of students, staff and faculty is simply not the priority of the university. It worries me tremendously because these plans are definitely going to cause unneeded illness and death.”

Sadler said he is also concerned about the university saying it is beginning and ending the semester early in order to “get ahead” of a second wave of COVID. “That makes no acknowledgement that a second wave doesn’t happen separately and independent from the actions we take now,” Sadler said. “The actions we take right now are going to effect what happens.”

Jennifer Standish, a doctoral candidate in the history department, will work as a teaching assistant in the coming semester. “I feel scared for my own safety and safety of other workers on campus — especially the ones on the front lines like graduate students, the cleaning staff and dining hall workers, the lowest paid workers who really financially have to come to work.”

Standish and Sadler both said they would prefer for their campus — and all UNC schools — to continue operating primarily online until there is an effective vaccine. “I don’t think there is really a way to do social distancing with students on campus,” Standish said. “We can space people out lectures maybe, but students are going to be living in dorms. I don’t know how that can work.”

After Wednesday’s meeting Eric Muller, a professor at UNC’s law school, took to Twitter to share a feeling with which a number of students and faculty said they sympathized.

“Coming out of mtg abt the univ’s developing plan for campus-based instruction, I’m struck by its relentless optimism,” Muller wrote. “At each point where technology can work or fail, it’ll work. Each time people can adhere to safety rules or break ’em, they’ll adhere. Life doesn’t work like that.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.