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.

COVID-19, Education, News

Majority of state’s 1.5 million students will start school with remote instruction

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Roughly one million of the state’s K-12 students will attend school remotely to start the new school year, State Superintendent Mark Johnson said Tuesday.

Johnson made the comment during a remote Council of State Meeting.

“Right now, we’re on track for two out of every three students in our public schools to start learning remotely,” Johnson said.

Two-thirds of the state’s 1.5 million students is about one million students.

Gov. Roy Cooper directed the state’s 116 school districts to reopen, as soon as Aug. 17, using a mix of remote learning and in-person instruction. Cooper also gave districts the option to reopen using remote learning only if coronavirus metrics indicate that’s best for students.

Raleigh’s News & Observer has reported that at least a million (66%) of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students will begin the school year this month receiving remote instruction.

Dane West, a Wake County social studies teacher, posted a map on social media showing at least 54 school districts reopening using remote-only instruction, also known as Plan C. Another nine will reopen under plans close to the state’s remote-only option, he said.

“I think for some districts it shows how they are worried about the health of their students and staff,” West said. “For others, it shows how necessary it is for the federal government to provide the funding for districts to be able to open schools with social distancing and other preventative measures.”

Source: Dane West

Johnson said no one will be happy when schools reopen.

“We get it,” Johnson said. “Distance learning does not replace being in a classroom and it’s a struggle for parents, students and teachers.”

But the remote instruction provided in the fall will be better than that received in mid-March when schools closed for in-person instruction, Johnson said.

“It still will not be perfect, but it will be better,” Johnson said, noting that remote learning will include more live interaction with teachers.

Johnson, a Republican, has been at odds with Democratic colleagues on the State Board of Education over how federal coronavirus relief aid is spent.

He struck a conciliatory tone Tuesday while sharing news about a N.C. Department of Public Instruction “resource page” coming soon to help families and educators better navigate remote learning.

“We ask that everyone join us and work to help to encourage one another and our students,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can all agree that no one is happy with what COVID-19 has done to our state, our nation and that we must work together with a level of grace and understanding to overcome these challenges ahead.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest urged the Council of State to push for as many remote learning options as possible, including virtual charter schools.

“There are going to be many families, especially those working-class families, that are going to be left without options unless we provide those for them, so we need to make sure we do that,” Forest said.

School districts were asked to provide remote options for families uncomfortable with sending their children to school for in-person instruction before the coronavirus is under control.

Forest also said families are concerned that children with special needs won’t receive the services they need because school districts are not reopening for in-person instruction.

“Our special needs parents are just kind of beside themselves,” Forest said. “They can’t get their kids special needs classes. We need to open up our schools for these special-needs students in particular to make sure they and their families are being provided the services they and their families need during this time.”

Many districts will provide some in-person instruction for students with special needs.

Previously, Forest, who is running for governor as the Republican nominee, has criticized Gov. Cooper for not reopening schools more completely and falsely questioned the usefulness of masks in inhibiting the spread of the virus.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC System President Peter Hans officially begins job this week, releases message to employees

New UNC System President Peter Hans officially takes the reins this week as the 17-campus system’s top leader.

Hans served as as president of the North Carolina Community College System for two years before being elected president of the system by the UNC Board of Governors last month.
He steps into the role at a tumultuous time. Tens of thousands of students begin returning to UNC system campuses across the state this week as North Carolina still struggles with high numbers of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

UNC System students, faculty and staff have all organized to call for the system to continue online-only education into the Fall semester, some proposing strikes and lawsuits.

The system is bracing for the possible financial fallout of reduced enrollment and the very real possibility that infections will force the campuses to close again this semester as they did last.

In that environment, Hans released a video a message for system employees Monday.

President Peter Hans Shares Message with University Employees from UNC System on Vimeo.

The message, in its entirety:

I’m Peter Hans, and I’m enormously proud to be the new president of the University of North Carolina System.

Today is my first day on the job, but I’m no stranger to this remarkable institution. I’m a graduate, past Board member, and I’ve worked closely with many of you during my time as president of North Carolina’s community colleges.

I’ve been a grateful friend and supporter, and today I become your colleague.

We’re facing a moment like no other in American higher education. A pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of our lives and work. Protests that speak to the ideals of our nation. An economic downturn that will deepen the value of our work while also making it harder.

Lives, livelihoods are under threat. All of us are under immense stress. Many are in grief. Which is simply to say, we’ll all need grace and kindness in the days to come.

So let’s offer it to one another. We’ll all need good will and good faith, so let’s grant it to one another.

There’s never been a more apt time to love thy neighbor, and the UNC System is a very big neighborhood.

The tests in front of us are daunting. This University was not built for easy things. It was built for the hard and worthy work of public service. And planning for the months ahead, we’re asked to balance public health with our core mission of public education.

We must do right by our students while also protecting our communities and our colleagues.

There are no easy answers to those tensions. But they mirror the complex challenges our entire society is facing right now, and I think it’s our duty to help chart a path forward.

That’s what the university has always done with its greatest contributions coming in times of deepest need. I’m amazed at the resilience of our faculty and staff in managing the sudden shift to online learning in the spring.

It was an achievement of staggering scale, and it gives me hope for how will continue to adapt – online in person or a combination. Come what may, we will deliver for our students.

We all know what’s at stake. Families are counting on us for new opportunities for better prospects amidst this uncertainty.

Our state is counting on us to help drive the struggling economy and provide answers to the most pressing questions of our time.

So here’s my pledge to you: I’ll be here each and every day with an open heart, open mind, doing my best to offer steady, stable leadership and support your best work.

We will encounter more than enough turbulence without creating any of our own.

I’ll be an effective and responsible advocate for funding and public support, upholding this University’s twin commitments to affordability and excellence. And we all know that the cost of a degree has risen too far too fast. We’ve got to change that. It’s vital for our economy, our democracy, and our culture.

I’ll work to make higher education trusted and accessible, and relevant for the people of the state. I’ll embrace the public schools, community colleges, and private institutions as full partners in our mission.

And I’ll testify anywhere and everywhere I can to the redemptive power of education, because education is most potent medicine we have for the health of our people and the surest route to shared prosperity.

Knowledge is the antidote to what ails us, whether it’s a virus, racism, or an absence of opportunity.

No matter who you are, where you live, who you love, what you look like, what you believe, where you came from, we’re all imperfect and striving—all linked by a common fate, all deserving of respect and dignity.

Those are the truths we’re called upon to defend. The care we’re obliged to give. The values we protect most dearly in times of greatest difficulty.

I’m proud to stand alongside of you, proud to be a small part of this great work.

Thank you.