COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill outlines plans for return to campus

UNC-Chapel Hill students will return to campus in early August, skip fall break and end the semester early, according to a Thursday message from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. Faculty and staff will begin a phased return to campus June 1.

The plan is similar to those announced by UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T earlier this week. School administrator say the changes are part of an overall strategy to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 during the current pandemic and help get ahead of a “second wave” of the disease expected during cold and flu season.

“The College of Arts & Sciences, along with our schools and units, are reconfiguring in-person course instruction to include physical distancing provisions,” Guskiewicz said in his message. “These considerations mean that small classes will meet in larger spaces, and large lecture classes may be split into smaller sections, delivered remotely or consist of a combination of both. Our goal is to offer as much flexibility for students and faculty as possible.”

“We made the difficult decision to eliminate fall break not only to finish sooner but also to minimize possible virus spread associated with travel,” Guzkiewicz said. “We understand that this new schedule may disrupt your summer plans and want you to know that we considered many options to avoid as much disruption as possible. Thank you for your understanding and know that we will do everything possible to offer flexibility and accommodation as needed.”

The UNC System hopes to finish work on its return plan guidance for the 17 campuses buy the end of this month,  UNC System Interim President Bill Roper told the UNC Board of Governors on Wednesday. Leadership at the individual schools will be given the authority to decide what works best for their campuses, Roper said.

“We are optimistic, leaning in and expecting our students, faculty and staff to return to classrooms, labs and libraries this fall,” Roper said.

From Guskiewicz’s message:

 

Based on advice from our infectious disease and public health experts, who believe we could be facing a second wave of COVID-19 sometime late fall or early winter, we are making significant changes to our operations. On their guidance, we are starting and finishing the fall semester early in an effort to stay ahead of that second wave. As these are unprecedented times, our roadmap will also have off-ramps, and we will modify this plan if conditions change and the situation warrants. The safety, health and well-being of our campus community will always be paramount in our decision-making.

This fall semester will look and feel different from the past. Here are some of the initial changes we are implementing to care for our community:

  • Faculty and staff will return in a phased approach. Research programs and laboratories will begin ramping up on-campus operations June 1. Employees should initially expect staggered work schedules, alternating schedules, reconfigured workstations, remote work and other accommodations to limit density on campus and maximize safety. More details to follow.

  • The first day of classes will be Aug. 10 (professional schools may vary), final exams will be completed by Nov. 24 and students will not return to campus after the Thanksgiving holiday. We will announce plans for New Student Convocation (Aug. 9) and Winter Commencement at a later date. The University will observe Labor Day (Sept. 7) and University Day (Oct. 12), but will eliminate fall break (Oct. 15-16) this year.

  • Students participating in organized co-curricular activities (e.g. Carolina Athletics/ROTC/UNC Marching Tar Heels) will be invited back to campus in a similar phased approach. More details to follow.

  • We will ask our campus community to adhere to our “community standards” and public health guidelines to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

  • Class sizes will be adjusted to allow for appropriate physical distancing; entering and exiting buildings will occur through clearly marked one-way corridors.

  • Time between classes will be extended to allow for necessary physical distancing in and out of buildings, which will impact the number of courses held during typical weekdays. Therefore, students and faculty can expect additional weeknight classes. More details to follow.

  • Up to 1,000 new students who are unable to begin residential learning and living in August may participate in a new experience called Carolina Away. This initiative, still in development, will allow them to learn together in high-quality, digital sections of key courses in our general education curriculum, participate in small group experiences and engage in learning communities that focus on the impact of COVID-19.

  • Many other areas are still in the planning phase. The University will launch Carolina’s Roadmap for Fall 2020 website next week that will serve as a repository of information relevant to fall 2020 operations. The website will be updated throughout the summer as more details are available.

 

Initial reaction from staff and students to Roper and Guskiewicz’s messages was mixed to negative Thursday, with a number of prominent faculty and students from UNC’s flagship school taking to Twitter to criticize what they say is a return that is too hasty and short on safety details.

Commentary, Higher Ed

Fetzer’s long overdue departure offers a ray of sunlight at UNC

Tom Fetzer

There hasn’t been much good news emanating from the UNC system in recent years. Ever since Republican legislators peppered the system’s Board of Governors with of a cadre of cronies and conservative ideologues, most of the news has involved controversy, backbiting, investigations and constant turnover in leadership.

Yesterday, however, there was a ray of sunlight when Tom Fetzer, one of the chief architects of board’s dysfunction, finally took his leave.

Fetzer, a corporate lobbyist, former politician and full-time right-wing firebrand has been an almost constant source of conflict and chaos at UNC.

He’s regularly worked to undermine the concerted efforts of his fellow board members with rogue actions – including destructively inserting himself into the chancellor searches at both Western Carolina and East Carolina, and indeed, seeking the jobs for himself.

He’s been a similarly unhelpful participant in efforts to do away with the “Silent Sam” statue that served as a hateful symbol of white supremacy to so many in the Chapel Hill community.

Fetzer says he resigned to spend time with his family, but the evidence indicates other board members had grown weary of his stunts and self-dealing and forced him out. As PW’s Joe Killian reported:

Fetzer’s announcement comes as the board is finalizing changes to its policies and procedures that would more strictly outline its members’ responsibilities. The policies will include censure and recommendation for removal of board members who overstep their roles. The changes were instigated by repeated problems with Fetzer acting in ways his colleagues said were inappropriate and possibly legally dangerous for the UNC System.

While most of the board was silent on Fetzer’s announcement, two members spoke to Policy Watch about it Wednesday. The members asked not to be identified so that they could characterize closed-session discussions of the board.

“I think the writing was on the wall for him that the board wasn’t going to put up with the kinds of things he was involved in,” one board member said. “We are putting some teeth into our policies and he is not stupid. He’s a very intelligent man. He knows if he continues to operate the way he has, he’s going to end up in trouble.”

Another board member said he believed Fetzer could “read the room” and tell that the majority of the board had no further stomach for scandals from its own board members.

“His personality is just not going to allow him to be on the board without going beyond the lines that most of us observe,” the board member said. “He just has the kind of nature where he’s going to do what he wants to do and he likes to get into it with people, and I think our board is trying to move beyond that. We’ve had too much of it in the last few years.”

Let’s hope this news signals a long overdue shift at UNC away from personal and political agendas and toward supporting the university of the people.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC System will not raise tuition, continues to explore fall semester reopening

Students returning for the Fall semester at UNC System schools won’t face tuition and fee increases. But it’s far from certain how many of those students will be returning and how the 17 campus schools will each handle their return.

The UNC Board of Governors voted unanimously on Wednesday to keep tuition and fees flat, as Policy Watch reported was likely earlier this month.

As Policy Watch previously reported,  most of the state’s universities would like to see tuition and fees increased. Just a few months ago, the board was considering an average increase for new, in-state undergraduates of 2.5 percent, or about $165. But chancellors at the individual universities and UNC Board of Governors members said they are reluctant to raise costs for students with so much economic uncertainty related to the pandemic.

“We believed the people of North Carolina had enough burden,” said  UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey in a press conference after Wednesday’s full board meeting.

Randy Ramsey, Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

How the  universities will absorb inevitable cuts is not yet clear. With increased costs and a massive hit to revenues related to the pandemic, the General Assembly is expecting a shortfall in next year’s state budget of up to $4 billion.

“If you’re looking at a state shortfall of $2 – $4 billion, you could be looking at a ten to twenty percent cut to the system, depending upon what revenue numbers come in at,” said board member Marty Kotis in a committee meeting Tuesday.

None of the universities are yet sure how many students will return to campus for the Fall semester, even if every school works out a plan for in-person instruction. Some may choose to take a gap year in light of the pandemic, board members said. Some families, concerned about the safety of returning to campus with the coronavirus projected to see another spike in cold and flu season, may choose to pursue online-only education until there is greater certainty.

“You don’t know if students are going to be there really, until they write that check for tuition,” Kotis said, which means the system can’t be confident of its own revenue figures.

This week, Kotis suggested the university may look at raising tuition on out-of-state students. That would help increase revenues without violating the university’s mandate to be as close to free as is possible for citizens of North Carolina. Read more

Education

Hold private schools that receive voucher money to higher standards, says Children’s Law Clinic report

Correction: Senate Bill 711 would not change income eligibility requirements for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. The bill would allow any student eligible to attend a North Carolina Public school to become eligible for a scholarship.

Private schools whose students receive taxpayer funded vouchers should be required to participate in state end-of-grade testing, says the authors of a new report recently released by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University’s Law School,

And participating schools should be required to offer a curriculum that’s equivalent to the curriculum used in public schools, the authors contend.

Staffed by Duke law students, the Children’s Law Clinic provides free legal advice, advocacy and legal representation to low-income, at-risk children in cases involving special education, school discipline and children’s disability benefits.

The recommendations are among those the authors made after a six-year review of North Carolina’s controversial Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides scholarships of up to $4,200 to help low-to moderate-income families send children to private schools.

Click here to see the report.

Taxpayers have spent more than $150 million on the voucher program since it launched in 2014. Another $730 million is set to be appropriated through 2027.

Public school advocates complain that the program fosters school segregation and lacks academic and fiscal accountability. They also contend it weakens public schools by shifting valuable resources to private schools while offering no evidence that students who receive vouchers perform better.

Meanwhile, voucher proponents say the scholarship provide low-and moderate-income families with financial assistance to flee failing schools and to choose schools that better fit their children

The Children’s Law Clinic’s report comes about two weeks after a group of Republican senators filed Senate Bill 711 to allow any student who attends a North Carolina public school to be eligible for the program.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican filed SB 711. Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton and Sen. Norman W. Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, are co-sponsors.

Jane Wettach

Jane R. Wettach, the William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law at Duke, the clinic’s founding director and the report’s lead author, said it’s important that the General Assembly understand program details and how it has worked.

“I hope the data presented will help the legislature make sound decisions about the continuation of the program, with the interests of both students and the public in mind,” Wettach said.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, denounced the bill shortly after it was filed.

“It seems particularly callous right now to make this a priority,” Marcus told Policy Watch. “Increasing funding for a program that is already over-funded, that’s taking money out of the coffers that will be needed in so many other places right now. It’s just not the right priority. Funding more private school vouchers is not a critical need right now.”

The authors also recommend that schools be required to set reasonable qualifications for teachers and that failing schools be disqualified  from receiving voucher payments.

Here are some of the key findings in the report:

  • No information is available to the public about whether the students using school vouchers have made academic progress or have fallen behind. All public reporting on academic outcomes of students receiving vouchers has ended because the program’s design prevents meaningful data from being available.
  • The central feature of the program is the provision of a government subsidy to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools. More than 90 percent of vouchers are used to pay tuition at religious schools; three-quarters of those schools use a biblically-based curriculum presenting concepts that directly contradict the state’s educational standards.
  • Private schools participating in the program are not required to be accredited, adhere to state curricular or graduation standards, employ licensed teachers, or administer state end-of-grade tests. North Carolina’s accountability measures for the voucher program are among the weakest in the nation.
  • Nearly half of the new applicants are those entering kindergarten and first grade who have not attended public school. Most other children are required to have attended public school before applying for a voucher. Once a child is awarded a voucher, it can be renewed for successive years.
  • After convening a task force to study program evaluation, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program, concluded that its features prevent an independent research organization from conducting an effective, valid, and reliable evaluation. Thus, although the law requires such an evaluation to be conducted, none is planned.
  • Only about 5 percent of the schools accepting voucher payments are subject to financial review by the state. At least one private school, almost entirely supported by voucher payments, closed mid-year, leaving nearly 150 students to be unexpectedly absorbed by surrounding public schools.
COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed

UNC Board of Governors allocating $44.4 million in coronavirus relief funds to campuses

When the UNC Board of Governors meets this morning, the full board will vote on how to allocate $44.4 million  from the Coronavirus Relief Fund created by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The board’s committee on Budget & Finance gave preliminary approval to a slate of allocation recommendations in a unanimous vote Tuesday.

The money will go to each of the 17 individual UNC System campuses, with separate line item allocations for the UNC System office, the N.C. Arboretum and $5 million in digital learning enhancements to benefit the system.

Direct funding for each school was capped at $4.5 million, which must be used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in one of four ways:

* Covering costs of moving coursework and exams entirely online during the pandemic
* Implementing a digital learning accelerator
* Sanitation prior to the reopening of campuses and during their operation thereafter (and other necessary and eligible expenses for services during ongoing operations in the pandemic)
* Assistance for students and employees, including counseling and information technology support.

Each allocation was calculated based on requests from the individual schools derived from their costs incurred and their estimated costs through December 2020, with the allocation to each school capped at $4.5 million. Only expenses incurred between March 1, 2020  Dec. 30, 2020 were eligible.

Source: UNC System Office

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