COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

PW Exclusive: UNC System creating all-campus COVID-19 dashboard not open to public

The UNC System is creating a system-wide dashboard to monitor COVID-19 metrics across the system’s 17 campuses, according to a memo from UNC System President Peter Hans to chancellors of UNC schools.

The memo, obtained by Policy Watch this week, describes a dashboard that would be updated daily for “internal, informational purposes only” and not available to the public. It would be password protected and chancellors would have to request access even for their leadership teams, according to the memo.

The memo, dated August 5, is accompanied by a series of charts marked “confidential draft: not for distribution” which detail which metrics may be tracked.

Josh Ellis, UNC System associate vice president for media relations, sent Policy Watch a statement late Thursday.

“The UNC System issued a draft administrative memo to our campuses providing direction on data reporting to the System Office to assess relevant conditions at our institutions,” Ellis wrote. “The information being collected is public information and nothing in the memo suggests otherwise.”

The memo uses the words “for internal, informational purposes only” in describing the dashboard and says that it will be password protected, for use by chancellors and their leadership teams if they should be given permission.

“Our campuses have, or can choose to have, public facing dashboards with information that is most relevant to monitoring and assessing conditions at each of our institutions,” Ellis wrote.

The memo makes no reference to public-facing dashboards at the university level and does not address whether the info collected daily is to be used in any university’s public-facing dashboard.

“Much of that data is also shared with county or local health departments and collected by the state,” Ellis wrote. ” The UNC System is committed to the safety of our students, faculty, and staff, and providing safe environments to learn, teach, work and live.”

This is a developing story Policy Watch will continue reporting.

Read the memo in its entirety below:

 

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill housing policies, density change as pandemic concerns intensify

It’s been a rough week for the UNC System — particularly its flagship campus, UNC Chapel Hill.

First, it was revealed that the Orange County Health Department recommended the school move online-only for the Fall semester and restrict on-campus housing to a bare minimum. The school did not disclose those recommendations to faculty, students or the community and only responded to them when they were reported by media outlets, including Policy Watch.

The school’s lack of transparency was condemned by students, faculty and local elected officials.

On Wednesday evening, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz defended the school’s decision not to follow the health department’s recommendations at an emergency Faculty Executive Committee meeting.

Instead, he said the UNC System had told campus administration to “stay the course” and continue with their reopening plan. He also touted several lesser measures the school is taking that address the health department’s concerns.  The two largest: reducing full capacity dorms to 64 percent capacity and classroom capacity to 30 percent.

But in a press conference Thursday, UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin clarified that the reduced residential capacity on campus isn’t the result of a plan by the school but the result of masses of students cancelling their housing contracts.

“We thought it would be better if students made the determinations more on their own rather than being directed in one way or another,” Blouin said.

The provost said the administration has been trying to “encourage dedensification of the campus.” Among those have been the “Carolina Away” program allowing more remote learning. It was initially thought a few hundred students might use the program, Blouin said, but somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 are now planning to use it.

But the primary reason the dorms have become less dense is that students cancelled their housing contracts, either because of health concerns or because more of their classes went online.

Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing.

The extended deadline for getting out of housing contracts without financial penalty is August 7. Students can cancel for any reason.

The school further clarified in a follow up e-mail.

“As outlined in the Roadmap for Fall 2020, all residential students may cancel their housing contract for any reason and without penalty prior to 5:00 p.m. August 7, 2020,” a spokesperson wrote in the email.

“After August 7 or following move-in, whichever comes first, a student-initiated contract cancellation will be accompanied by the standard cancellation costs, and that individual student will receive a prorated credit,” they wrote. “Students who elect a course schedule of remote learning for all classes before the Fall 2020 late registration deadline of August 16, will have no cancellation costs or penalty and will receive a prorated credit.”

“However, if the University moves to fully remote instruction as an off ramp during the semester, the University and Carolina Housing will work with the UNC System to determine whether the University is able to issue housing refunds to residential students,” they wrote.

After that date, any student whose classes are all online can cancel their housing contract without penalty, Blouin said. Students wishing to do so can contact the Carolina Housing via email.

With two dorms being used as isolation and quarantine dorms for those exposed to or positive for COVID-19 there are 7,877 available beds on campus, said Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing. Right now there are about 4,990 students scheduled to live on campus, Blattner said.

It is not clear the degree to which classroom density, which the university says will be down to 30 percent, is the result of moves to actively reduce capacity or of professors shifting their classes online.

There has been a movement among professors at many UNC schools to move as many classes online as possible as administrators have not been willing to officially move all instruction online.

This week Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty council, said she will herself be teaching online-only following the Orange County Health Department’s recommendation.

“I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department,” Chapman wrote to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in an email Wednesday.

Calls and e-mails to the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill for clarification on system and university policies and density reduction measures were not returned Thursday.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

Unions call for county health directors to shut down in-person instruction at UNC schools in pandemic

Unions and groups representing UNC System workers and professors are urging county health directors from college communities across the state to order universities to close for normal business “until such time as students, faculty and staff can return safely to their work” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The memo, sent Thursday, comes after this week’s revelation that the Orange County Health Department recommended UNC-Chapel Hill go entirely online in the Fall semester and cut on-campus living to a bare minimum. UNC-Chapel Hill administrators did not disclose those recommendations to faculty, students or the community and is not following them.

The President of the UNC System and the UNC Board of Governors will make the ultimate decision about university closings. They have directed the chancellors to follow orders from public health officials but not recommendations.

The coalition of groups sent the memo calling for orders to directors of health in Watauga, Pitt, Pasquotank, Cumberland, Guilford, Wake, Durham, Orange, Buncombe, Mecklenburg, Robeson, Forsyth, New Hanover and Jackson counties.

“Today, we implore each of you, as the experts and stewards of public health in your respective communities that include UNC System campuses, to communicate your own concerns, guidance, mandates, directives and recommendations in explicit terms, directly to university leadership at the campus in your county,” the unions wrote in the memo. “We ask you to send your own thoughts about how, when, and whether to safely re-open campus to the chancellor and other university leadership with whom you are working on this evolving situation.”

“Nobody knows your county’s unique strengths and areas of vulnerability better than you and your colleagues. We are depending on your collective knowledge, experience, and voices to keep our communities safe, healthy, and strong,” they wrote in the memo. “We ask that you do the responsible thing and order universities closed for normal business until such time as students, faculty, and staff can return safely to their work. We speak not only for ourselves, but on behalf of our students, co-workers, families, and neighbors in making this plea. Ultimately it is your guidance, your words and actions that will matter the most as we move forward together.”

The coalition includes NC Public Service Workers Union: UE Local 150; UNC-Chapel Hill American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Chapter; Members of the North Carolina Conference of AAUP; Workers of UNC Coalition

Read the full memo here.

 

Education, Higher Ed, News, public health

Chair of UNC-CH faculty: “a serious breach of trust” campus not aware of Orange County health recommendation

The chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty sent an email to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin Wednesday expressing “dismay” faculty were not made aware that the Orange County Health director last week recommended the school move to online-only instruction and restrict student housing due to mounting evidence of widening COVID-19 infection.

“It feels like a serious breach of trust to have kept such recommendations from the campus community of faculty, staff and students,” wrote Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty.

In the email, whose subject line is “Dismay,” Chapman goes on to say that she has personally changed her plans to hold an in-person orientation for doctoral students this week and that the class she planned to teach in person this semester will change to remote.

“I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department,” Chapman wrote.

Chapman pointed to already rampant flouting of mask and distancing rules on campus, in student stores and at off campus gatherings.

“These look like off ramps to me,” referring to the term UNC-Chapel Hill has used to indicate things that would lead them off of their “roadmap to return” and back to the online-only instruction of last semester.

Policy Watch has reached out to UNC-Chapel Hill, the UNC System office and UNC Board of Governors for response to the Orange County health director’s letter. They have not yet responded.

Chapman’s letter, in its entirety:

 

Dear Kevin and Bob:

This morning members of the FEC had the attached letter forwarded to us. We are  completely shocked that such a letter would’ve been received last week and that none of us have known about it until now – hours before it has turned up in the News and Observer.  It feels like a serious breech of trust to have kept such recommendations from the campus community of faculty, staff, and students.

Yesterday, I received word from a faculty member that in student stores, which was packed, only a third of people there were wearing masks.  Just now I received a video from a citizen who videotaped a line of what appeared to be sorority women – at least 50 – coming out from an indoor, unmasked gathering at 210 Ransom Street.

These look like off ramps to me. For myself, I am changing my plans to hold a in in person orientation for our doctoral students tomorrow, and my class that was planned to be delivered in person will change to remote.  I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department.

Since assuming this role, it has been my intention to interact collaboratively.  I recognize that people occupying roles such as yours are balancing many competing priorities and, that in the current environment, the choices are very difficult.  However, with outside guidance from public health authorities such as is included in this letter, to proceed without completely candid discussion with your faculty, as well as other interested parties, feels like a betrayal.  I urge you to call a meeting of the general faculty immediately and to address the concerns that are outlined in this letter. Or if you would like me to call it, I will.  If the implications of this letter means that we must send some students home, that is how it will have to be.  If it means bringing this information to the BOG so that they might grapple with the implications of ignoring these warnings, then by all means do that, and I will stand with you.

I look forward to speaking soon.

With best regards,

Mimi

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

Orange County Health Director to UNC-Chapel Hill: Go online as default for Fall semester, restrict on-campus housing

The Orange County Health Director has urged the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to move to online education as the default for the Fall semester and to restrict on-campus housing as the COVID-19 pandemic in the county worsens.

Health Director Quintana Stewart made the recommendations in a July 29 letter to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

As of this week, UNC-Chapel Hill is moving forward with in-person classes. Thousands of students began moving into residence halls this week in a full-capacity dorm plan that the Centers for Disease Control considers to be “highest risk.”

In the letter, Stewart expressed concern over signs that student returns have already contributed to spikes and clusters of infections.

From the letter:

To date, Orange County has been home of approximately 1,241 lab confirmed positive COVID-19 cases and 45 deaths. Over the past month we’ve watched our daily case count nearly double with record highs in early July of 38 new cases per day. We’ve also seen an increase in cases for those in the 18-24 age group (22%) and the 24-49 age group (37%). While the data reports that our local cases appear to be stabilizing the last couple of weeks, we at public health know this is not a totally accurate picture of what is happening in our community. As the State moved into Phase 2 and things began to open up, we saw an increase in our cases. As students have begun to return to campus prior to the official start of the Fall Semester we’ve experienced a small fraction of what we will see if the campus fully reopens and all the students return for in-person class. In the last 4 weeks we’ve seen positive COVID clusters among UNC staff and athletic teams. We’ve experienced the increased activity and gathering on Franklin Street that resulted in clusters that visited a couple of local restaurant/bar establishments. We’ve seen the off campus parties and gatherings at Greek Houses. We’ve also experienced the lack of cooperation from students with the communicable disease investigation and control measures mandated by NC General Statute §130A-144. For multiple cases staff had to spend several hours trying to gather information and cooperation from students. As a last resort, legal remedies were suggested to gain cooperation. This is absolutely not the desired outcome for our campus students. Due to the reporting structure for positive cases, our data does not necessarily capture each of these cases as they are attributed to the home county of residence, however the reality is Orange County Health Department Staff and UNC Campus Health Staff have been tasked with the monitoring and investigation of these cases here in Orange County.

 

UNC-Chapel Hill students are already reporting invitations to large house parties organized by student athletes and in-person fraternity and sorority rush events that do not include masks or social distancing.

On Monday a UNC-Chapel Hill student posted a video to Twitter depicting what he said was a large group of young women engaging in a sorority rush event. None were wearing masks or practicing distancing.

While fraternity and sorority recruitment is officially entirely virtual this year, sources in Greek organizations at UNC-Chapel Hill confirmed to Policy Watch last week and again this week that a number of  unofficial “dirty rush” events are being held off campus.  The events are promoted via word of mouth, closed social media groups and text messages, several of which have been examined by Policy Watch.

UNC Faculty have also noticed the lack of distancing and mask compliance to exhibited by students returning to campus and around town in Chapel Hill.

“I hope all will go well,” said Deb Aikat, associate professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of Journalism and Media. “But there is already some evidence that students and employees and faculty are being affected by COVID.”

It is not difficult for those on and around campus to see that some students and community members aren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.

“If you take a walk on Franklin Street nobody is wearing a mask nobody is social distancing” Aikat said. “I was there yesterday on Franklin Street. I was appalled.”

While the school is not requiring tests for all students, the new COVID-19 campus dashboard  shows 175 total infections among those tested on campus — 139 of them students. That’s a cumulative positive rate of 10.6 percent.

The dashboard shows 13 student infections the week of 7/20 and a positive rate of 11.1 percent. It shows 13 student infections for the week of 7/27, the last week before most students began to move onto campus, for a positive rate of 8.6 percent. The current statewide infection rate is  8 percent.

In her letter, Stewart advised going to online instruction for the entire Fall semester but at a minimum for at least the first five weeks of classes. She also calls for restricting on campus housing to “at-risk students with no access to equitable educational resources and those with true housing needs (i.e. International students, Carolina Covenant & marginalized students) in order to provide single-occupancy rooms, which should significantly slow community spread.