UNC System president to “weigh the best course” for each system school following COVID-19 outbreaks

After a week that saw both N.C. State University UNC Chapel-Hill move undergraduate classes online due to COVID-19 outbreaks, UNC System President Peter Hans said he is “working with each chancellor to weigh the best course for each campus.”

“Since the pandemic began, we have listened to and collaborated with leading public health officials while closely monitoring changing conditions across the state,” Hans said in a written statement Friday. “We will continue to do so because health and safety is our priority. Each campus has unique resources and challenges, so flexibility is key. I’m working with each chancellor to weigh the best course for each campus.”

UNC System President Peter Hans.

The system and its individual schools have been highly criticized for moving forward with re-opening plans that were against the advice of medical experts and public health officials. In the case of UNC-Chapel Hill that included proceeding with on-campus living and in-person courses against the recommendation of the Orange County Health Department. According to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, UNC System leaders advised him to “stay the course” with their plan despite that recommendation.

The full-capacity, shared space, on-campus housing plans put in place at most UNC schools qualify as “highest risk”  according to guidelines put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The in-person classroom plans qualify as “more risk” — the middle tier of three risk categories. Most UNC schools have not actively limited students in their dormitories, instead relying on concerned students cancelling their housing contracts to reduce density in shared living spaces.

“I want to thank the faculty and staff doing extraordinary work under tough conditions,” Hans wrote in his message. “I also commend all of those students who have acted to protect themselves and our community. We all hoped for better circumstances this fall. But no matter what, we will provide the rich, rigorous education our students need and deserve.”

At the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, the Durham-based two-year residential high school run by the system, classes are set to begin Monday.

This week, seeing the proliferation of infection clusters at other system campuses, the faculty at NCSSM passed a resolution opposing in-person, residential learning in the Fall semester and asking for the autonomy of all UNC System schools to make their own decisions about reopening.

The resolution “recognizes the constraints imposed by the Board of Governors and UNC System President that require NCSSM to offer face to face courses” and says the board has been “opaque in its decision-making and rejected the long-standing practice of shared governance with faculty and staff.”

The resolution states that “despite the time, energy and money invested by NCSSM to create a safe environment, the risks posed by the virus are still too great to bring students, faculty, and staff to campus even in a low-density model of face-to-face instruction” and calls for fully remote instruction, time for the faculty to adjust the curriculum and lesson plans to the new medium. It also asks that all UNC System schools have the autonomy to make these decisions for themselves, something for which faculty across the system have petitioned the board of governors since Policy Watch first reported that the decision to close schools due to infections would be made by the UNC System president and board of governors, not the leaders of the individual schools.

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