Vague reopening plans are forcing UNC staffers to choose between their jobs and their health

By: - June 11, 2020 12:01 pm
Meg Miller recently quit her job as a house mother for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity over concerns about contracting COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)

[Note: This story has been updated to incorporate statements from UNC Media Relations.]

Until recently, Meg Miller was the “house mother” at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house on Columbia Street, just off the UNC-Chapel Hill campus across from the Carolina Inn. She started as a cook but over 25 years her duties expanded to managing the property, doing all the purchasing, and working with a staff of two to keep the house safe and clean for decades of “Dekes.”

In many ways, it’s been more than just a job. “I’ve gotten really close to a lot of them,” she said. “I’ve been to their weddings. I’ve buried some of them.”

Given that longtime bond, Miller thought she could be frank with the men about the basic COVID-19 precautions they would need to observe when returning to school in August. She requested they wear masks and observe social distancing as much as possible to avoid infecting anyone in the house.

“That didn’t go well,” she said. “They’re not going to wear masks and they’re going to party, no matter what the university or anyone says,” Miller said. “They’ve said that to my face.”

After weeks of pressure from some students, faculty and staff, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced Wednesday that people will be required to wear masks on campus when the school returns to on-person instruction in August. The move came the same day Orange County announced its own public mask mandate. While the mask mandate on campus will help, there’s simply no way to ensure how careful students will be in their private lives off-campus.

“They [the Dekes] just told me they’re not going to do it,” Miller said. “They’re not going to wear masks in the common areas. They’re going to have parties. They think of it as their choice — they’re going to decide what they do, nobody else. But for some of us, there isn’t really a choice about being safe.”

Miller, 62, has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease — COPD. Her daughter-in-law recently completed chemotherapy. Her 85-year-old mother is a close part of her family. One of her staff members at the house has a daughter with a heart condition.

“You have to think about what could happen if you get this,” Miller said. “And you have to think about the risk to the people you love.”

There are 22 students in the 16-room house, Miller said. It’s a challenge to keep clean and its residents healthy even under normal circumstances. As North Carolina continues to record record numbers of infections and hospitalizations, she hoped the students would understand they have to be as cautious as possible.

“But they just want everything to go back to normal, like it was before,” Miller said. “Well, things aren’t normal right now. So, I quit. I really wasn’t ready to retire — I would have kept on doing it. But not like this.”

Policy Watch reached out to the local chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon and to the fraternity’s national organization by phone and email this week. Neither returned messages.

The university’s Student Affairs office referred Policy Watch’s questions about fraternity and sorority pandemic safety to its communications department. That department said it would look into the issue but has, as of Thursday, provided no further comment.

— Update: Late Thursday, Policy Watch received a statement from UNC Media Relations that read in relevant part:

The safety and well-being of our?campus and the local?community?is?paramount. The University is asking everyone to play a role in keeping each other safe.?We know it’s going to take?every member of our community?committing to doing their part to maintain a safe environment.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s fraternities and sororities are off campus on private property. The Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life has met with both the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic executive board to discuss fall recruitment and what that might entail. Several options were discussed, including the possibility of virtual recruitment. The OFSL hopes to announce a plan by the end of July, which will follow guidelines from the University, the Centers for Disease Control and recommendations from our own infectious disease experts.” – Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Ion Outterbridge

  • The University has put into place a set of community standards in an effort to support health and safety. Those standards include practicing physical distancing, washing hands often, using hand sanitizer and maintaining clean spaces. The University will require appropriate face masks in all classrooms and likely in other specific settings as part of these community standards.
  • Fraternity and sorority house directors are not University employees so University policies and guidelines for employees do not apply, but we encourage all community members to follow CDC guidelines to limit spread of the virus.”

“Out and about”

Orange County’s public mask mandate has an exception for places where it is “not practical or feasible to wear a face covering when obtaining or rendering goods or services.”

Translation: No masks are needed in the restaurants and bars where students are likely to gather and socialize.

“I can probably say with almost near certainty that although there may be some that will wear masks [in off-campus social situations], the vast majority are unlikely to wear masks,” said Maian Adams, chief of external relations and advocacy of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation. “I say this because I have seen some students out and about now over the summer who aren’t necessarily practicing social distancing,” Adams said. “They are going to bars and they aren’t wearing masks even if the bartenders are wearing masks and the other people around them.”

Miller has seen plenty of that behavior from students already, she said. “On the last day of classes, one of the fraternities next to us had a big party. The Chapel Hill police had to come over and close them down. During spring break they were having big parties and they’ve been having parties for graduation, regardless of the rules about gatherings.”

Seeing one such party with a large gathering of students on a fraternity house lawn, Miller said she politely reminded them it wasn’t safe to gather so closely — especially as none of them were wearing masks.

“They called me a ‘Boomer’ and a bitch,” Miller said. “That’s the reaction you get.”

Beyond concerns about off-campus behavior, plenty of students still have questions about how the university plans to bring back more than 8,000 residential students — with dorms at full capacity — without creating COVID-19 hot spots.

Just this month, 36 new infections were reported at UNC-Greensboro, among workers doing construction on the school’s nursing building. If crews working in close proximity on a mostly empty campus experience that level of infection, students and faculty have asked, what do administrators expect when they bring hundreds of students together in dorms for an entire semester?

“We need to prioritize the well-being of students despite the fact that most students want to come back to campus,” said Reeves Moseley, UNC-Chapel Hill’s undergraduate student government president, this week.

Students are particularly concerned with the safety of dorms, he said, and whether there can be effective social distancing while sharing rooms, hallways, bathrooms and common spaces. “There’s just no way to bring that many of them together safely right now in dorms,” said Miller, the former “house mom” who saw fraternity brothers through cold and flu seasons for more than two decades. “Nobody who has actually seen students living together and how close you have to be could actually think that’s a safe idea.”

“They don’t think we’re people”

Miller’s husband, Michael Oakley, is having his own troubles at UNC-Chapel Hill. Oakley, a master plumber on the school’s facilities staff, arrived at the Morehead Planetarium last week to help install a hot water converter. It should have been a simple job — the kind he’s been doing on the Chapel Hill campus for more than 25 years. But the task quickly became complicated.

Mike Oakley, a master plumber at UNC-Chapel Hill, works in close quarters with other employees, most of whom don’t wear masks. He’s taking sick leave accumulated over 25 years to avoid catching the novel coronavirus. (Courtesy photo)

“There was five of us,” Oakley said. “I was wearing a mask. One other guy was wearing a mask. The other guys, they’re not wearing anything.”

The job involved heavy lifting and close-quarters work. Like so much of the labor performed by the university’s relatively low-wage facilities staffers, it can’t be done with social distancing. “I didn’t feel good about it,” Oakley said. “But I knew I had to do it.”

He told his supervisor everyone should be wearing a mask, but got a response that amounted to a shrug. “They said they can’t mandate the guys wearing masks,” Oakley said. “They can mandate steel-toed shoes and safety glasses. So why not that?”

Guskiewicz’s mask announcement could change that. But it’s not yet clear how the university will enforce the mandate.  After initially saying he wasn’t sure the failure to wear a mask could be treated as a student honor code violation, Guskiewicz now says that’s being considered. “Everything is on the table,” Guskiewicz said in a video conference Wednesday.

Also unclear is how the university will deal with visitors to campus who aren’t students, faculty or staff.

“I just don’t know yet how that will be enforced for visitors to the campus,” Guskiewicz said. “This is a public university, as you well know. And it’s open to anyone who wants to visit. We have to determine the best way to determine and enforce it.”

Darrell Jeter, the school’s Director of Emergency Management and Planning, said there will be department-level coordinators to help distribute masks and determine demand. Just what type of masks will be acceptable — and what type the university will provide employees — hasn’t yet been decided, Jeter said.

“We’re looking at the cloth, we’re looking at the disposable,” he said.

But communication on masks to comparatively lower paid staff members has been spotty and confusing, Oakley said. “They said they’re going to provide us with one disposable mask per week, and they’ll replace it if it gets dirty,” Oakley said. “You’re not supposed to wear one disposable mask for a week. If that’s all you can provide the people who have to be there every day is one mask a week, then you’re not ready to bring them back.”

Guskiewicz also announced that employees and students would need to be screened for COVID-19 before returning to campus, a demand faculty made this week in a petition signed by more than 600 instructors. But such a plan seems to contradict the advice of UNC’s own medical experts whom administrators say they are relying on as they create the return plan. 

— Update: Policy Watch received the following statement on this matter from UNC Media relations late Thursday:

Facilities employees have been returning to campus as part of our phased return approach. Below are some of the protocols and guidelines established for Facilities staff when they return to their roles:

  • Before returning to campus, all facilities employees have been and will continue to be required to complete an online Protecting the Carolina Community from COVID-19 training course. This course includes information on mitigating transmission, guidelines for eliminating or minimizing hazards, and the appropriate use of and disposal of Community Protective Equipment (CPE).
  • Staff will wear appropriate protective equipment based on roles and responsibilities and in adherence to current guidance. The University is providing all facilities staff members with face masks, which will be required while on campus. The University also is providing gloves for housekeeping staff and staff members who are in frequent direct physical contact with faculty, staff or students.
  • Facilities staff have been instructed to wash or sanitize their hands for 20 seconds every 60 minutes and after any of the following activities: using the restroom, touching their face, sneezing or blowing their nose, cleaning, eating or drinking, going on or returning from break, and before and after each shift.
  • Shared tools and equipment will be disinfected before, during and after each shift or whenever equipment is transferred to a new employee. This equipment includes but is not limited to: phones, radios, computers, cleaning equipment, tools, keys and other direct contact items used by Facilities staff.

On Monday several of those experts told a faculty meeting the disease’s 14-day incubation window makes mass testing of asymptomatic people ineffective and likely to create a false sense of security.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

The university is rolling out a wellness check web portal this week that will allow students, faculty and staff to check and report symptoms if they suspect they’ve been infected.

Guskiewicz and other administrators have consistently resisted answering what students, faculty and staff all say is a central question: How many people would have to fall ill, be hospitalized or die before the university takes an “off-ramp” on its roadmap and returns nto online-only instruction?

The university is still working on those “off ramps,” their potential triggers and what they may look like, the chancellor said Wednesday.

“It seems like they should be able to say that,” Oakley said. “You know you’re doing something that’s going to mean people get sick. So when that happens, what do you do? When do you stop it?”

The ambiguity has led Oakley to do something that is, for him, extraordinary: he’s actually using his sick leave.

Over a long career he’s rarely taken a sick day. He’s accumulated so much leave, he said, that he technically has enough to take him through October, when he’s eligible to retire.

“Now I’m not saying I’m going to refuse to come to work,” Oakley said. “I don’t want to get into that kind of situation with them. But right now, I just think I’m going to use as much of this leave as they will let me until they figure some of this out.”

As faculty members have for weeks pressed for options and protections in the university’s reopening plan, they have frequently stressed lower-paid, non-faculty staffers are less represented in such conversations. As those tasked with cooking, cleaning and fixing things across campus, they’ll also likely face the most exposure.

“I think the students and the faculty, they think of them as people,” Oakley said. “Us — they don’t really think we’re people.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.