With clusters of campus COVID cases, the fall semester was a failure. In the spring, history could repeat itself.
Faculty members and administrators in the UNC System are butting heads over pandemic planning for the spring semester, as some schools consider bringing more students back to campuses.
Last week faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill published an open letter urging administrators to abandon plans to increase the number of in-person classes and triple the number of students living on campus. The letter, which has been signed by more than 150 faculty members, asks the leadership at the system’s flagship school to learn from mistakes made in the fall semester. Overconfidence and a lack of realistic planning led to massive clusters of COVID-19 infections, ending in-person instruction and sending most students home after just six days.
“Given current conditions and UNC’s track record, the plans for Spring are doomed to repeat too many of the failures of the Fall,” faculty members said in the letter. “The only ethical decision is to cancel face-to-face instruction (with the exception of classes that demand it, such as clinical experience) and to keep on-campus residency reserved for those who have special circumstances.”
“Roughly 1,000 undergraduates with special circumstances lived on campus this Fall,” the letter read. “We were able to accommodate them without spikes and clusters. Let’s not more than triple that number. Similarly, we recognize that there are staff who must continue to work on campus; they should receive ample, high-quality PPE and hazard pay.”
Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, the faculty members wrote — both nationally and in North Carolina. Hospital ICU capacity was at 81% in Chapel Hill and 97% in Durham as of Dec. 9. With average new cases in the state at three times what they were when the fall semester began, the faculty members argue, relaxing restrictions is not just illogical but unethical.
As Policy Watch reported in August, administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill decided to move forward with bringing students back to campus for the fall semester despite the recommendation of the Orange County health director. They also chose not to share that recommendation with faculty, students or the wider community, who learned about it through media reports. Faculty leaders called that a “serious breach of trust.”
Deb Aikat is a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee and signatory to the open letter. He said campus leaders — particularly Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz — have recently been emphasizing that 14 of the system’s 17 campuses were able to keep students on campus this fall. The implication, Aikat said, is that UNC-Chapel Hill should be able to follow suit.
“He wants to give it a try,” Aikat said.
The school plans to require COVID testing of students who return to campus — an idea university leaders rejected for the fall semester, saying it would give those testing negative a false sense of security. Faculty members, who had advocated for mandatory testing from the beginning, are relieved school leaders have abandoned that position, Aikat said. But testing isn’t enough.
The largest UNC system campuses by on-campus population — Chapel Hill, N.C. State University in Raleigh and East Carolina University in Greenville — were all forced to send students home after being overwhelmed by infections. The numbers of students at these large campuses, and the percentage of them who live in congregate living situations on campus and off, was a crucial part of why the return to campus failed, Aikat said.
The culture of large social gatherings on those campuses hurt, as well. Many clusters were traced to fraternity and sorority houses, parties and rush events that violated community regulations set by the schools.
“It was an experiment in the fall and it failed,” Aikat said. “And now they want to do another experiment. It’s one experiment after another. And there is a general feeling that trust has been lost.”
Faculty at the system’s smaller schools, where students remained on campus throughout the fall semester, said they also relate to frustrations over a lack of cooperation and transparency from school leaders.
“They say the first casualty of war is the truth,” said Dr. Michael Behrent, chairman of the Appalachian State University Faculty Senate, in an interview with Policy Watch this week. “That’s also true of a pandemic.”
This week Behrent shared with his colleagues emails from AppHealthCare Director Jennifer Greene to emergency management officials and ASU administrators from Oct. 13 and 14. In the emails, obtained through a public records request, Green wrote that the school should stop saying the university has no documented cases of classroom transmission. She also wrote that she was unsure that students known to have been exposed were always notified.
“I don’t think that can be clearly stated. Do you?” Greene wrote. “We know we have some courses that had multiple cases purely from report to us, and we’ve documented in Veoci many cases that have attended class while infectious. I realize that there was a decision made to only notify when necessary, but even in the cases where we know there’s been exposure, I’m not sure that has happened.”
That information was not shared with faculty, students or the wider community, Behrent said.
In the emails, Greene also offers a dimmer view of contact tracing on campus than has been communicated by school leaders.
“For contact tracing, I think it would help to review the details in how we manage the students we have not been able to reach,” Greene wrote. “We appreciate all the assistance to date, but recognize the volume of work has increased. The team shared with me this morning that there was over 50 students reportedly failed to be reached yesterday after two attempts. And, I know that’s on top of the new and established cases we are all supporting and you are helping to do outreach. And, this pattern of some level of students failed to be contacted continues. I do hope the increased communication will help, but realize that is a growing burden.”
Students have been found to be attending classes while infectious, Greene wrote. When this is the case, AppHealth hasn’t consistently reached those they may have infected, she wrote.
“In addition, we need to identify a better method for getting class rosters and contact information for exposed students and faculty since we are aware of a few occasions where we know social distancing was not maintained per the report of the positive case,” Greene wrote.
“We also know there have been several examples of students attending class while infectious that have been documented. Without cross referencing class lists and notifying people consistently in these instances, I do not believe we can confidently say there has been no classroom associated transmission. I know that there are several safeguards in place, but without this, I’m not confident we have the full picture.”
These types of scenarios are at the heart of a class action lawsuit brought by UNC employees against the system over unsafe working conditions in the pandemic. For months ASU Chancellor Sheri Everts has cited the suit, in which a number of faculty senate members are plaintiffs, in her decision to no longer meet with the faculty’s elected leadership, attend its meetings or send representatives to do so.
Though the lawsuit includes plaintiffs from most of the system’s schools, Everts is the only chancellor who has used this reasoning to avoid meetings with faculty leaders.
In August tensions over Everts’s handling of the pandemic and relationship with faculty led the Faculty Senate to pass a rare “no confidence” resolution on her leadership.
Everts was scheduled to hold a Chancellors Advisory Committee meeting today that as to include members of the Senate Executive Committee, including Behrent. In their first meeting since the “no confidence” vote, Behrent said he hoped they can begin to rebuild the faculty/administration relationship that is needed for shared governance as the campus heads into a challenging Spring semester.
“I do think there needs to be that relationship, that trust,” Behrent said. “And I think that’s difficult right now on a lot of our campuses.”