COVID-19, Higher Ed

UNC Board of Governors meets today amid questions, tensions over COVID-19

The UNC Board of Governors will hold a special, full board meeting Friday via teleconference after a full day of teleconference committee meetings Thursday that in many ways offered more questions than answers.

Many questions about how the system will  respond to the COVID-19 pandemic long-term, or even past this semester, were tabled until the full board meeting. A discussion of postponing commencement was brief and did not come to a conclusion. Discussions of the challenges students face in trying to move out of their dorms by this weekend while resuming classes online was tabled for the Friday’s full board meeting.

Board of Governors member Marty Kotis was rebuffed in several attempts to have budget and legislative priorities drawn up a month ago rewritten or tabled in light of the pandemic.

“We can’t stick our heads in the sand,” Kotis said during a budget discussion that involved sending hundreds of millions of dollars in budget priorities to the North Carolina General Assembly.

The asks to the legislature included funding for new classroom and dormitory buildings as well as for summer classes. Kotis said that in light of so much uncertainty about when students may return to campus and the likelihood that the pandemic will stretch into summer, the board should instead be asking for money to expand its online education capacity and should not be approving the use of cash for most capital projects.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis

But the majority of board members present said that while the pandemic is of great importance, the board can’t throw aside long-term planning.

Unable to get the committees of which he is a part to postpone budget and legislative priority items, Kotis instead asked that they at begin putting together updated asks for the General Assembly specific to the pandemic.

“I’d like to request we develop budget priorities specific to the coronavirus impact over the next month and have that be available for the legislature before they return on the [April 28th], including some mission critical items that relate to COVID-19,” Kotis said.

Though Interim UNC System President Bill Roper assured Kotis that was already underway, Kotis did get a commitment that the board will work on pandemic-specific needs, with Roper leading the efforts.

In remarks to several committees, Roper emphasized the seriousness of the pandemic and the questions is raises for management of the 17-campus university system.

In a personal and uncharacteristic aside, Roper referred to The Bible in discussing what he called the “unprecedented challenge” of the pandemic.

“If you read Esther, Chapter 4 it has relevant language for times such as this,” Roper said.

“To state the obvious, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that not only is effecting the university system but every person, family, business and institution across North Carolina and the nation,” Roper said. “In a crisis like the one we’re in, we have to apply the principles of triage  — meaning, we’ll focus on the most critical and urgent issues now and then get to others in due course. But that doesn’t mean way in the future — it means tomorrow, the next day, so on.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

“We’ve set as priorities the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Roper said. “Secondly, continuing our academic mission by transitioning to online learning. I’m pleased to tell you that 95 percent of our classes or more are now ready to go online. We’re ensuring that our students have a place to live with access to online studies and access to nutrition.”

“I tell you, I believe we will get through this,” Roper said. “But it will not be easy. We simply don’t know when this is going to be over and we have to be prepared for the long haul. We’ve been working with the chancellors  and their teams, who are on the front lines — also with state and county officials. I’ve spoken many times this week with the governor, with [House] Speaker [Tim] Moore, with [Senate] President Pro Tem [Phil] Berger, with DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen and our board leaders, especially [UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy] Ramsey and we’ve been in touch with our congressional delegation in Washington.”

“There are many other issues that are on peoples’ minds,” Roper said. “Just to name a few of those, beginning with what financial issues do we face, what refunds will students be due such as housing and dining. And I would commit to you that we will in a position to start to answer those questions in the next week. But I say again, we’re in a serious global pandemic and we’re proceeding with the expectation that this will get worse before it gets better. I had the occasion to talk to the leaders of several of our large health systems across North Carolina and they are preparing for an onslaught of patients at their institutions.”

“I will tell you I am confident we  will not get everything right,” Roper said. “But we will make corrections as we move forward.”

The public can listen to Friday’s full meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, which begins at 9 a.m. Friday,  via a live stream.

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors meeting via teleconference this week

The UNC Board of Governors is holding committee meetings Thursday and a special full board meeting Friday, all via teleconference, as the system continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The public can listen to a live audio stream of the meetings online through a special web page set up for that purpose.

A full schedule of the meetings is available here.

Policy Watch will be reporting on these meetings.

Earlier this week, the UNC system began closing dorms and dining halls at all of its 17 schools as it saw its first COVID-19 case, an employee at UNC-Chapel Hill.

UNC System Interim President Dr. Bill Roper released a video Wednesday morning, providing an update on the quickly evolving situation and the university system’s reactions to the pandemic.

Concerned students at UNC-Chapel Hill are petitioning to follow many other top colleges and universities in moving to a pass/fail grading system for the Spring 2020 semester as their academic lives have been upended.

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

Petition to move to pass/fail grading at UNC-Chapel Hill getting heavy support

A petition  to move to pass/fail grading for all courses at UNC-Chapel Hill for the Spring Semester has gained momentum, surpassing its original goal of 5,000 signatures in fewer than 24 hours.

The petition was organized by students concerned about the impact of massive changes to instruction and housing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. It is swiftly moving toward a new goal of 7,500 signatures. Faculty and staff have also been expressing support for the idea online. The university yet to announce a change in grading policy.

The UNC System has not yet addressed how any of its schools might handle grading for the semester or graduation.

From the petition’s explanation of the problem:

Due to the spread of COVID-19, UNC’s campus as well as many other college campuses and educational institutions around the country have decided to discontinue face-to-face instruction and proceed with virtual instruction. While this decision greatly serves the population and protects everyone from potential exposure to illness and contaminants, it puts the students of UNC at an educational disadvantage for a variety of reasons.

First, this system of learning through Zoom Conferencing and virtual instruction prevents meetings with professors and TAs in person. While we can still interact with our professors and TAs through email, phone, and video-calling, there are limitations including one’s time zone, WIFI availability, logistical organization, etc. Additionally, an inability to physically be on campus poses challenges to students’ educational quality. UNC provides multiple resources for students that will no longer be available. Indefinite virtual instruction means an end to the access, putting many students at a disadvantage. These disadvantages cause a great deal of stress for students, adding on the fact that the course load and material will still be the same.

Furthermore, virtual instruction for the duration of the semester would cause a great deal of difficulty for professors and TAs as well. Classes in which participation is weighted heavily would be difficult to grade just considering the first half of the semester. It is unfair for both the professors and the students to have to find alternative ways to measure and quantify this part of education.

UNC is also a very diverse community with students coming from all parts of the globe. International students and even students living in different parts of the country (specifically the West Coast) would have to stay up or wake up at strange times to “attend” virtual classes. For instance, lectures starting at 8 am in Chapel Hill, NC would require that students on the West Coast be up at 5 am to participate in the class. For international students, this would mean really early or really late times. This is unfair to them as the university emphasized for students to return to their permanent addresses during this period of uncertainty. This jeopardizes the mental health of a plethora of students who have to continue doing school work, “attending” class, and figuring out when to eat and sleep while maintaining a regularity that is simply impossible with this system.

Offering a pass/fail option for all classes, including those required for the major, will help alleviate some of the stress caused by measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  If a class this semester is used as a prerequisites for a future class the letter grade requirement will be waived as well. This has been done in the past; pass/fail grades in response to a national emergency (i.e. Vietnam War Demonstrations in the 70’s).  UNC students are driven and passionate but even under the right circumstances, the amount of work and engagement can be exhausting and detrimental to the general mental health of the student body. We all made it to UNC, we all can do the work. Making the semester “lower stakes” wouldn’t discourage students from doing well in their classes, but rather allow some leeway for those put in tough academic situations. The university has done well in allowing for students to retrieve their belongings and supporting us through keeping student health open. This is recognized and commended. However, this entire process has put a large strain on the mental health and future plans of many students. We urge you to make classes pass/fail in order to make truly equitable policy for this ever-changing situation.

Sincerely,

The Students of UNC

 

The student organizers have noted many of the country’s top schools — including Georgetown, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon — have now moved to a pass/fail system in reaction to the pandemic, while other universities have implemented a “no finals” policy.

 

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC System sees first COVID-19 case, begins closing dorms and dining halls

The UNC System has its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, the university office confirmed late Tuesday.

An employee at UNC-Chapel Hill has tested presumptively positive and is self-isolating at home. Those who have had direct contact with the employee are being notified, according to a UNC alert.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s residence halls will be closed to all students except under “special circumstances,” according to a campus-wide e-mail from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent Tuesday. Students who are currently on campus will need to begin moving out no later than Saturday, March 21, at 5 p.m., according to the e-mail.

Image: Adobe Stock

“Exceptions will be made for a small number of emergency staff, administrators and researchers, as well as for students who are granted special circumstances waivers to remain in campus residence halls,” according an e-mail from the university.

Students who need to remain on campus must apply for a waiver by Wednesday, March 18, at 5 p.m.

UNC Libraries, Campus Recreation, Student Stores and classroom buildings are all closing as well.

Campus Dining Services will also be converted to takeout-only  and will be for students with approved waivers to stay on campus, a move echoing the closing of restaurants and bars except for delivery and takeout being closed throughout the state  by Gov. Roy Cooper’s Tuesday executive order.

All 17 UNC System institutions will be taking similar measures as meets their individual campus needs and schedule throughout this week, according to the system office.

UNC System Interim President Dr. Bill Roper released a video Wednesday morning, providing an update on the quickly evolving situation and the university system’s reactions to the pandemic.

From Roper’s statement:

As you all know, we are in the midst of a very serious health crisis. COVID-19 presents the UNC System and North Carolina with some unprecedented challenges.

 In the face of trying circumstances, we have all joined together in a team effort to help those we serve . The past three weeks have been among the most challenging in our University System’s history, and we have responded with a System-wide sense of purpose and a remarkable, unified team effort.   I am proud of all that has been accomplished.  And if you are a UNC System student, employee, faculty member, university leader, or volunteer – you should be too.

 Faculty and staff have all adapted quickly to a rapidly changing environment. Together, we are facing COVID-19 with ingenuity and an inspiring spirit of collaboration. Your efforts are indispensable to the UNC System’s focus on the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff, and the delivery of our core academic mission.

 Special thanks to everyone who continues to work on site to assist those students who can’t return home due to extenuating circumstances. You are indispensable to our commitment to serving those students who depend on campus facilities for food, shelter, and access to online materials. If you are one of our students with special circumstances, I urge you to reach out and complete any exemption forms that will ensure you have what you need to continue your education.

 This week offered a vivid reminder of why our University System is so critical to North Carolina and the value of our shared commitment in all that we do.

 On Wednesday, UNC Medical Center and UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill announced that they have developed a diagnostic test for COVID-19. This new test will be used at UNC Health hospitals and select clinics across our state, allowing for more testing capacity at the state health department and LabCorp in North Carolina.

 This effort exemplifies how the UNC System’s work isn’t just good for our students. … it benefits all North Carolinians.

 Witnessing our faculty, students, families and leaders at every level of the UNC System community rallying together has filled me with great optimism. These are challenging times, and the UNC System is rising to the challenge.

 Thank you … and be well.”

Policy Watch will continue to provide updates on ongoing changes and cover their impact on students, faculty and staff.

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC system implements stricter measures to slow spread of COVID-19

The UNC System is taking new, stricter measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by a new coronavirus.

Last week the system announced it would move from in-person to online instruction “indefinitely” to help slow the swiftly spreading pandemic.

After consulting with Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, the Board of Governors and other state leaders, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper has updated previous guidance issued to the 17 institutions last week, the system office said in a statement Tuesday.

Among the new precautions:

  • All institutions will continue to switch from in-person instruction to a system of “alternative course delivery,” where possible and practical, no later than March 20. University leaders will determine which classes, such as those with labs, will continue to require in-person instruction and attendance.
  • In order to substantially reduce the number of students on campus and in university housing, each constituent institution will instruct students who occupy university housing to remain at, or return to, their permanent residences unless granted an exception by the institution; exceptions will be limited to situations where students establish significant need to remain in university housing.
  • The institutions will also establish an exceptions process, with an appropriate health screening, that allows students to remain in university housing if they establish a legitimate and significant need to do so.
  • Campus dining operations will be limited to takeout or similar options, with the expectation for smaller numbers of students remaining on campus.

Institutions will continue to work with local public health officials and other community members to develop plans for quarantine or isolation, should it become necessary.

  • In light of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance announced this week, each institution should cancel or postpone gatherings that assemble 50 or more individuals in a single room or space, or find alternative means of meeting, such as by video or telephone conference.  Any events or gatherings that meet or exceed the 50-person threshold will require the approval of the chancellor. The CDC and White House have recommended avoidance of gatherings of more than 10 people.
  • Institutions will continue to use teleworking and identify mandatory employees needed for continued operations during the COVD-19 pandemic, as well as exercise discretion for granting paid administrative leave, where appropriate.

Policy Watch will continue to report on the efforts of the university system as it reacts to the pandemic and the impact on students, faculty and staff.