On Monday the chair of UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty asked UNC Board of Governors to allow the school to make its own decision as to whether the campus makes online education as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens.
In a letter to the board and the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, made the case for the school’s need to determine when and how to down the campus if the return of tens of thousands of students to campus next month leads to outbreaks.
“UNC-Chapel Hill is looking at bringing 30,000 students from across the country onto our campus in two weeks while the virus continues to rage, testing supplies are becoming thin, and the normal routines of life are being upended,” Chapman wrote. “I am asking that you allow decision-making at the local level for our campus, so that our administrators, together with our local public health experts, can make the best decisions for our faculty, staff, and students.”
The letter comes a week after UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey made clear individual campuses and their chancellors will not have the power to make decisions about going entirely online due to COVID-19 infections on their campuses. Instead, he told UNC system chancellors in an email, that decision will be made by the UNC Board of Governors and incoming UNC System President Peter Hans.
The announcement apparently surprised UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, who had one day earlier told the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Assembly that the decision on when and whether to shut down the campus over health concerns would be a local one.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s plan for a return to campus was begun in good faith and with the best available information, Chapman wrote in the letter. But COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in the state continue at record levels. In the last few weeks the school has seen dozens of student athletes, athletic staff and housekeepers infected upon their early return to campus.
“Until the last few weeks, I have believed that the re-opening plan could work if all students, faculty, and staff would individually do their part for the good of all,” Chapman wrote. “However, The Roadmap to Fall is based on a particular set of assumptions, many of which no longer hold. Specifically, in the spring, infectious disease and epidemiological experts were of the opinion that the COVID-19 virus would recede during the summer months. The main concern, therefore, was to avoid students being on campus during the onset of a ‘second wave’ that was predicted to begin in November or December of 2020. However, as you are aware, we are still firmly in the midst of the first wave with numbers climbing in North Carolina as well as in 42 other states across the nation.”
“Next, the Roadmap was created with the belief that testing supplies would be abundant and test results could be quickly available,” Chapman wrote. “We are hearing that there is great concern about whether UNC will have the needed testing supplies to keep up with demand once 30,000 students return to campus since testing materials are being sent to the most hard-hit states.”
“Also, the time from test to result varies greatly meaning that work and educational disruptions for students, faculty, and staff may be extreme,” Chapman wrote. “Further, because mask-wearing has been deemed ‘controversial’ in the larger society, concentrated health messaging along with stringent enforcement will likely be needed to ensure a level of compliance that will protect our campus community.”
“Thus far, the messaging to students around masking has been limited,” she wrote. “Given that students are on course to begin moving into dorms in two weeks, it is a real question as to whether there is adequate time for such messaging to be prepared and to penetrate our campus community.”
In his e-mail last week, Ramsey also told chancellors to prepare “worst case scenario” plans for cuts of 25 percent and 50 percent so that the UNC System can be prepared for lost revenues should the campuses have to close this semester as they did last.
Chapman addressed the budgetary concerns in her Monday letter as well.
“Everyone on our campus wants to do the work we love and upon which our state has always placed high value,” Chapman wrote. “Many of us have committed ourselves to teaching in person because we believe to do so is best for students, particularly those from more vulnerable communities, and also because we do not want to see anyone who works on our campus lose their livelihood. We are willing to do our part. But at this point, I believe that our University and perhaps the entire UNC system is being asked to turn straw into gold. Even our best UNC scientists cannot do that.”
“In contrast, the federal government has resources to support public higher education should it choose to act and do so,” Chapman said. “Our state likewise has a significant “rainy day fund” that could be used to support public institutions of higher education through this crisis. If this pandemic does not meet the definition of a rainy day, I do not know what does.”
The UNC Board of Governors meets Wednesday in committees and will hold its full board meeting Thursday.