Education, Higher Ed

After fourth COVID-19 cluster students, prominent faculty and medical experts call for UNC-Chapel Hill to go online

The push to close the campus is intensifying after a fourth cluster of COVID-19 infections was reported in student housing at UNC-Chapel Hill on Sunday.

A “cluster” is defined by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as five or more infections in a related area. Sunday’s cluster at the Hinton James residence hall makes four since classes began last week — three in residence halls and one in a fraternity house. The school is not releasing specific information on how many infections are in each cluster and had not, as of Monday morning, updated its COVID-19 dashboard to reflect information past the week of Aug. 3 through Aug. 9.

Students on campus and housing employees with direct knowledge of the mounting number of cases tell Policy Watch more clusters are likely to be announced soon as more tests come back positive.

The school is using its Parker Residence Hall to isolate students who test positive and its Craige North Residence Hall to quarantine those who are close contacts who have yet to test positive. There are 85 rooms in the isolation dorm and 63 for student quarantine.

The school has not updated the capacity at each of these dorms since Friday.

On Sunday Dr. Kurt Ribisl, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Health Behavior, took to Twitter to call for the school to take an “off-ramp” in its plan to return to on-campus housing and in-person instruction.

Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, is calling for the same action — and wrote Saturday to the UNC Board of Governors asking them to give Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz the power to make that decision.

The school’s board of governors and the UNC System chancellor have made it clear any such decision will be made by them, not by chancellors at the local level. The board and president have been silent in the last week on the mounting infections at UNC-Chapel Hill  East Carolina University and Appalachian State University. Calls for comment have been referred to the individual universities.

Guskiewicz has, to this point, resisted calls to end the return to on-campus instruction and has made no public statement that he would if so empowered. In interviews and faculty forums he has defended the school’s return plan as safe and cautious.

An increasing number of students are leaving campus on their own, saying they do not feel safe and believe the school has mismanaged the return.

The Daily Tar Heel, the campus’ independent student newspaper, published a scathing editorial Sunday calling out the school’s lack of transparency and failure to heed  both the warnings of the Orange County Health Department and the will of students, staff and faculty.

From that editorial:

The administration continues to prove they have no shame, and the bar for basic decency keeps getting lower.

They chose to ignore the Orange County Health Department, which recommended that the University restrict on-campus housing to at-risk students and implement online-only instruction for the first five weeks of the semester. They chose to ignore the guidance of the CDC, which placed the University’s housing plan in the “highest-risk” category.

Even faculty — though many of them continued to teach classes in-person — saw it coming.

Now, as we prepare for a second week of classes, many questions remain unanswered. What factors will trigger the so-called off-ramps, and what will they look like? How many positive cases will it take for the University to realize the danger they’ve put us in?

Particularly concerning is the fact that the University has refused to disclose any additional information, including the official number of positive cases, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

But, don’t we have a right to know? There is a significant difference between five positive cases and, say, 20 — and the potential for exposure extends far beyond those identified through contact tracing. Furthermore, many have expressed doubt as to whether FERPA actually prevents the University from disclosing case numbers. According to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education, schools may release information regarding COVID-19 as long as “a student’s identity is not personally identifiable.”

But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that UNC has used FERPA as an excuse to withhold relevant information from the campus community. For years, UNC refused to release disciplinary records of students found responsible for sexual assault on campus. Only after a long, expensive legal battle and a ruling from the North Carolina Supreme Court did the University finally turn over the information.

The Editorial Board recognizes that the decision to transition away from in-person classes is one that ultimately lies with the Board of Governors — not the administration. However, Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin and the rest of the administration are far too eager to attribute blame to parties other than themselves. Matters are rarely as complex as UNC makes them seem. The chancellor of a public university with a multi-billion dollar endowment is hardly powerless — not now, not ever.

We’re angry — and we’re scared. We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives.

UNC is often recognized for the ambition demonstrated by its students and faculty, and the administration’s insistence to maintain an on-campus presence amid a pandemic can definitely fall under that.

One thing’s for sure — this roadmap leads straight to hell.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee meets in a special session at 4 p.m. Monday.

The Appalachian State University faculty will meet Monday at 3:15 p.m., at which time they will consider a vote of “no confidence” in  that school’s chancellor.

On Wednesday Wake County Superior Court Judge W. David Lee will hold the first hearing in the lawsuit by UNC System employees over what they say are unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. The employees are seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the reopening of schools under the current conditions.

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