COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC’s minority serving schools get $6 million to research, fight COVID-19

Six schools within the UNC System’s that serve communities of color have been awarded $6 million to fight COVID-19, the system announced Thursday.

The schools  — Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, N.C. A&T State University, North Carolina Central University, UNC Pembroke and Winston-Salem State University — will each receive $1 million through a partnership between the UNC Board of Governors and the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Last month state lawmakers approved a $1.5 billion coronavirus relief package. The collaboratory got $29 million to study testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19 as well as its public health and economic impacts.

 “One of the first calls I received after the $29 million research package was approved by the General Assembly and the Governor was from [UNC Board of Governors member] Darrell Allison,” said Jeff Warren, executive director of N.C. Policy Collaboratory. “From our first conversation, it was clear we were both well aware that these campuses, and the communities they serve, represented areas of the State hardest hit from this pandemic. This investment builds on forward-thinking research already occurring on all six of these campuses.”

Allison is chair of the board’s Committee on Historically Minority-Serving Institutions, which was formed in 2018.

“This is yet another opportunity for the UNC System to show the meaningful impact that our historically minority-serving institutions are making in their respective regions and communities they serve,”Allison said. “I am confident that this partnership and these programs will provide real-life solutions in the fight against COVID-19, today, and could be a model for how our state can more effectively confront tomorrow’s crises as well.”

The system provided a summary of each school’s proposed work Thursday:

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC System forming task force to examine racial equity issues

On Monday the chairs of the UNC Faculty and Staff Assemblies and president of the UNC Association of Student Governments called on the UNC Board of Governors to respond to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the resulting international protests against police violence and racial inequity.

On Tuesday, Interim UNC System President Bill Roper and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey responded, announcing the creation of a task force to examine racial equity issues and make recommendations to the system for addressing them.

From the system’s letter establishing the task force:

“George Floyd died a horrible, violent, and unjust death at the hands of a white police officer,” they wrote. “This immoral and indefensible act cries out for justice and compels all of us fully to recognize and grapple with our country’s history of racism and oppression that has so often resulted in violence. As members of the University community, it is our obligation and responsibility to do the hard work needed to address inequities in the UNC System for the benefit of students, faculty, staff, and all North Carolinians.

  • We are pleased to announce that the UNC System Equity Task Force is being established as a six-member special committee of the Board of Governors, with each of you as members, joined by Board of Governors members Darrell Allison (Chair), Kellie Blue (Vice Chair), and Anna Nelson (Vice Chair). The UNC System Office will provide staff and resources needed to support the important work of this task force. We ask that the task force do the following:
  • Meet with student, faculty, and staff groups to discuss issues of race and equity in the UNC System and all tangible steps that can be taken across the UNC System in pursuit of equity and understanding;
  • Gather, explore, and develop recommendations, suggestions, and feedback;
  • Prepare a report to the Board of Governors, to include a list of recommendations and action steps in priority order; and
  • Present the report to the chair of the Board of Governors and the president by October 2.We look forward to working with you on this important project for the future of the UNC System.”

The task force is just one of a number of seven actions called for by the student, faculty and staff leaders.

From their Monday letter:

“As a community of higher education, we are dedicated to knowledge, inclusiveness, diversity, and truth. We ask that there are several issues that can be quickly addressed to begin the healing and attenuation of the pain:

  • Convene a UNC System Task Force to develop a strategic plan to engage and leverage its tremendous intellectual and financial resources to address this issue in a comprehensive, meaningful, and impactful way for all faculty, staff, students, and the communities we serve.
  • Ensure a safe working environment that is rooted in belonging and in which the personal rights, lives, and dignity of everyone is assured. The perspectives of all North Carolinians must be exemplified by those who will guide the University of North Carolina System into the future.
  • Start a discussion regarding culturally relevant decisions, even while we deal with theCOVID-19 pandemic. Re-dedicate ourselves to reflect on what we can do as an academic community and as individuals to confront the issues of racism in our own communities.
  • Ensure that our students, staff, and faculty have access to whatever is needed to try to be in a state of wellness, both psychologically and physically, when they return to campus in the Fall Semester. Ensure that all university constituents have access to mental health resources, to health care, and to academic help that will ensure their respective success.
  • Advocate to find solutions for our students who continue to experience oppression on our campuses and in their daily lives. The pain from longstanding racial oppression cannot be healed quickly, but the discussions to do just that can start today, from the UNC System Office outward.
  • Acknowledge the indispensable role of the UNC System HSMI’s in fostering the empowerment of marginalized communities, and especially people of color. It is imperative that these institutions receive adequate support to continue to meet their individual missions, particularly during these economically uncertain times.
  • Above all, stay engaged with our students, staff, and faculty by acknowledging openly that the current situation is challenging, and that everyone is suffering, especially students, staff, or faculty of color. The COVID-19 pandemic has sensitized us to an unseen disease of viraletiology; it is beyond time to address the disease of racism that attacks our collective soul.”
COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

Students, medical experts weigh in on UNC-Chapel Hill’s return to campus

Students and medical experts joined the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee Monday afternoon for a discussion of re-opening to on-campus instruction August 10.

Students joined the faculty in their skepticism over parts of the plan as they again pressed administrators about safety measures and decision making as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“I think students want to come back to campus,” said Reeves Moseley, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Student Body and Undergraduate Student Government President. “Being on Zoom is not ideal in any circumstance. There’s the mental health aspect of it but there’s also the education aspect of it. Students don’t want to be paying tuition dollars for online guidance and teaching.”

But that’s not the student body’s largest concern, he said.

“I think students are more so concerned about their well-being,” Moseley said.

Reeves Moseley

There are still a lot of unanswered questions and many moving parts in the plan to bring students back to campus, Moseley said. Students are particularly concerned with the safety of residence halls and whether there can be effective social distancing there, he said. They also have questions about the wearing of masks, whether they will be mandated and how the school may enforce that.

“We need to prioritize the well-being of students despite the fact that most students want to come back to campus,” he said.

How students will behave off-campus — and how off campus students may be treated differently than those living on campus — is a concern, Moseley said. On-campus students who are exposed to the virus or who test positive will be quarantined in two campus residence halls kept for that purpose, he said. But what happens to off campus students who are similarly effected and who will come and go on campus, and among their off-campus roommates?

Most students will wear masks on campus and especially in classes, said Preeyanka Rao, undergraduate vice president.

“The majority, if not all, of the students I’ve talked to — all of them have voiced they are comfortable and want to be wearing masks on campus,” Rao said. “I think given all of the scientific research that has been done with coronavirus as well epidemiological and health behavior findings, students understand the necessity of wearing masks to reduce transmission of the disease.”


Preeyanka Rao

But student leaders were less confident students will be willing to wear masks and observe social distancing protocols at parties and in off campus social situations. That’s a major concern in bringing thousands of students from across the state and country back to campuses in the Fall.

“I can probably say with almost near certainty that although there may be some that will wear masks [in off campus social situations], the vast majority are unlikely to wear masks,” said Maian Adams, Chief of External Relations and Advocacy of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation.

“I say this because I have seen some students out and about now over the summer who aren’t necessarily practicing social distancing,” Adam said. “They are going to bars and they aren’t wearing masks even if the bartenders are wearing masks and the other people around them.”

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COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill petition over return to on-campus instruction signed by more than 600

UNC-Chapel Hill instructors are submitting a petition to administration this week that calls for specific protections as the school prepares to return to on-campus instruction August 10.

The Bell Tower on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The petition, launched last week, has been signed by 666 instructors. It asks the administration to ensure:

  • No instructor will be required to teach in person or be required to disclose personal health concerns.
  • All members of the UNC-CH community will be required to wear masks and practice physical distancing in classrooms and public settings.
  • All staff, students and faculty on campus will be tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 in the first weeks of classes and that the school develops a plan for regular and ongoing testing.

The Faculty Executive Committee will meet via video conference this afternoon, where it will hear from students, health experts and administrators.

Faculty have for weeks expressed frustration that campus and system leaders have not included them in plans for returning students to campus and have not properly addressed their concerns about resuming in-person instruction while the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing.

Courts & the Law, Higher Ed, News

Blind student files federal discrimination lawsuit against Duke University

Image: Schoonmaker

B efore Mary Fernandez enrolled at Duke University, she was assured she would be provided the accommodations for an equal education to her peers who aren’t blind.

Despite that assurance, Fernandez experienced barriers that permeated every aspect of her educational experience at Duke, according to a news release about a new federal lawsuit against the university.

“When she applied for admission, she encountered an inaccessible web-based application,” the release states. “When she registered online for courses, she could not access the course descriptions. When she utilized the employer recruiting system, she could not set up her user profile and could not utilize any of the search functions. In addition, Duke failed to provide Ms. Fernandez with timely access to accessible course materials, including hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics when she requested them. As a result, Ms. Fernandez was continually forced to divert her time and attention away from her studies to advocate for equal access to her education.”

Duke University officials did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Duke University systematically discriminates against blind students and alumni in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday. The action, brought by the National Federation of the Blind and Fernandez, alleges that Duke failed to ensure that blind students can interact with digital content and platforms and access course materials on an equal basis with students without disabilities.

Fernandez began the Duke daytime MBA program in the fall of 2018. To read print, she uses screen access software, Job Access with Speech (JAWS), which vocalizes the text using synthesized speech or displays it on a connected device called a refreshable Braille display. For STEM subjects, Fernandez also uses hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics to better understand the complex concepts because refreshable Braille displays only display a single line of Braille cells at a time, and thus are not useful for complex equations, coordinate planes, diagrams, maps and other graphics.

“I expected an institution with Duke’s high standards and reputation to be able to meet my needs as a blind student and was assured that would happen,” Fernandez said. “Instead, my time at Duke has been something of a nightmare. I hope the action I am now taking will improve things for future blind students who want to attend Duke.”

The National Federation of the Blind, headquartered in Baltimore, is the oldest and largest nationwide organization of Americans with low vision. It defends the rights of blind people of all ages and provides information and support to families with blind children, older Americans who are losing vision, and more.

Mark Riccobono, president of the organization, said discrimination against blind students is not a new issue; it’s been a focus of their advocacy for nearly two decades, and “institutions of higher education have no excuse for not meeting this legal and moral obligation.”

“The blind cannot and will not tolerate discrimination of this kind,” he added.The blind cannot and will not tolerate discrimination of this kind. Click To Tweet

The plaintiffs are represented by the attorneys of Disability Rights NC and the law firm of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP.

“The failure to provide blind students with timely, accessible course materials and career services not only harms their educational experience, it puts their future career and economic self-sufficiency at risk,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “Duke University, in particular, has previously been sued by Disability Rights NC regarding the inaccessibility of its course materials and has the responsibility to know better and do better.”

Duke University settled a lawsuit in 2016 filed by Disability Rights NC on behalf of a student with dyslexia who accused the school of not accommodating his educational needs. Under the settlement, Duke agreed to provide additional training to its disability services staff and liaisons to enhance the effectiveness of student accommodations, to forge a connection between the disability services office and IT staff to ensure that technical issues related to the provision of accommodations are resolved quickly and to publicize the student ombudsman’s contact information on the accessibility services website, according to a previous news release.