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.


Teachers plan to continue serving students amid school closures in North Carolina

NC Teacher of the Year Maria Morris

Mariah Morris, North Carolina’s reigning Teacher of the Year, has asked educators across the state to post instructional videos on YouTube for students stuck at home due to COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

Morris, an elementary school teacher at West Pine Elementary School in Pinehurst, joined regional 2019 and 2020 Teachers of the Year for Facebook live meeting Monday morning to discuss how teachers can continue to serve students through online learning.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Saturday that all public schools would close for at least two weeks.

“We are in uncharted times, and teachers want to help,” Morris told Policy Watch. “From the time school closures were announced, there has been a buzz among teachers to come together to act in the best interest of our students. This is a wonderful opportunity for teachers to come together across North Carolina and connect with our students daily.”

Morris asked teachers to focus on four “action steps” that include donating to local food pantries and the United Way; working with community leaders to make sure students are fed, safe and warm; and supporting students and teachers who are adapting to new modes of learning.

And beginning today, the Teachers of the Year will provide instructional videos on Morris’ s YouTube channel. Elementary lessons will be posted at 9 a.m., followed by middle school and high schools lessons at 9:30 a.m.

“There are great online resources already out there for students to use,” Morris said “However, the online resources aren’t a connection with a warm, caring teacher. The purpose of these videos is for students to be able to see a friendly teacher’s face each day modeling a fun lesson. We want to provide a social-emotional connection, routine, and engagement for our students as we all learn to navigate these unprecedented times.”

Morris, an adviser on the State Board of Education, warned that the pandemic and widespread closures are unprecedented for North Carolina. 

“State leaders don’t have a road map for what to do,” she said. “We didn’t have time to plan for this. We’re literally figuring it out as we go.”

Teachers will play an important role in helping state leaders navigate the next several weeks, she said.

“This is our time to shine and to show our communities across North Carolina that we can step up and that we can lean in and we can do what it takes to meet our students needs as well as our community needs,” the Moore County educator said.

Last Friday, Cooper said public schools would remain open, but he reversed course on Saturday, the same day a Wake County teacher tested positive for the virus. 

However, Cooper said that didn’t factor into his decision.

“We need a period of time here to assess the threat of COVID-19 and to make sure we have a coordinated statewide response to deal with the fallout when you don’t have children in schools,” Cooper said at a Saturday press conference. “I’m not sure there is a right or wrong here because there is so much we don’t know. If we are going to err here, we want to err on the side of caution.”

The governor has appointed a child nutrition task force to work on ways to ensure low-income students can still be fed and have their immediate needs met while out of school.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, the State Board of Education adopted a resolution in support of school closures.

“We will seek to support our public schools across the state,” Board Chairman Eric Davis said in a statement. “Work is already underway to help feed children who are out of school. To serve students we will seek to leverage our existing digital capabilities and we will work with educators to find new ways to deliver instruction.”

COVID-19, Defending Democracy, Education, News

Gov. Cooper closes NC schools for at least 2 weeks; prohibits gatherings of more than 100 people

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today that all K-12 schools in North Carolina will be closed beginning Monday for at least two weeks in response to the rapidly changing situation associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

He also issued an executive order to prohibit gatherings of more than 100 people. He had issued guidance Thursday to cancel those mass gatherings, but said today that a number of venues were not complying, so his order makes it mandatory.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Cooper explained at a press conference. “I don’t want any regrets in our rear-view mirror when this pandemic subsides. … This is a risk we cannot tolerate. … No concert is worth the spread of this pandemic.”

The executive order does not apply to restaurants, shopping malls or other retail businesses.

Cooper’s announcement about school closures came 24 hours after he said schools would remain open. However, earlier today, Wake County announced a teacher had tested positive for the virus. The Governor said the teacher’s situation didn’t factor into the new decision, but that it was intended to address the patchwork of school closures across the state.

“We need a period of time here to assess the threat of COVID-19 and to make sure we have a coordinated statewide response to deal with the fallout when you don’t have children in schools,” Cooper said. “I’m not sure there is a right or wrong here because there is so much we don’t know. If we are going to err here, we want to err on the side of caution.”

Cooper has appointed a child nutrition task force to work on ways to ensure low-income students can still be fed and have their immediate needs met while out of school.

North Carolina Board of Education Chair Eric Davis also said they are committed to mitigating the impact of the school closures by helping to coordinate food delivery for students and asking the General Assembly to give waivers to school districts. The Board is also working with higher education systems in their responses to the virus.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson said at the Saturday press conference that the decision to close schools was not one they wanted to make, but it is “the right decision.” He said the school districts have been planning for the past week on how to cope with closures.

There have been 23 positive COVID-19 cases in 12 North Carolina counties, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said health officials are continuing to test individuals who have a fever, cough and test negative for the flu.

The situation regarding testing supplies has improved, but she said it’s important to note that getting tested does not mean getting treatment. She added that while testing is an important in the first phase of this work, they are trying to make sure sick people can be treated.

COVID-19 responses are developing and changing multiple times per day. Follow NC Policy Watch for updates as they become available.


Most of the state’s K-12 schools will remain open, at least for now

North Carolina is not recommending “preemptive closure” of schools in response to COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, Mandy K. Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS), said Friday.

“However, things are changing rapidly,” Cohen said in an afternoon news conference. “We are both looking at the science, the advice from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) but also what’s happening around our communities, getting feedback from our superintendents, understanding what our other state partners are doing. We need to take in all of that input as we make decisions.”

Cohen’s remarks come a day after Durham Public Schools (DPS), Orange County Schools (OCS) and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) announced schools will close for several weeks beginning Monday.

Cohen noted that new CDC guidelines do not recommend preemptive closures.

But nationally, the number of state that are closing public schools is growing.

Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington State and the District of Columbia have ordered schools closed.

“We’re going to be taking in a lot of inputs, including understanding what our state partners are doing,” Cohen said. “We want to be on the phone with folks in Virginia and Maryland to understand their decisions.”

Cohen said closing schools can have lots of unintended consequences.

For example, she said 40 percent of school children are cared for by their grandparents, while the children’s parents work. The virus is especially dangerous to the elderly.

“How many of our kids are going to be with grandma and grandpa, understandably because mom and dad have to go to work, and then, are we putting grandma and grandpa at higher risk,” Cohen said.

Educators also worry that children who rely on school lunches will go without meals. They also worry about lost instructional time for students who don’t have access to the internet to participate in e-learning planned by some districts.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson told state leaders attending a meeting of the Governor’s Novel Coronavirus  Task Force on Thursday that parents with the means to keep their children at home are frustrated that schools have not closed.

District leaders have said e-learning opportunities will be provided while schools are closed. However, e-learning in rural districts could be more challenging.

“If, heaven forbid, we have to make the decision to close schools, we will also then have to hear from parents who struggle to keep their children at home, who might not have the internet connection,” Johnson said.

More K-12 districts could follow DPS, OCS and CHCCS, as the virus continues to spread. Many of the state’s universities, including the UNC System, are providing only online classes to help contain the disease.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction shared this information Friday about North Carolina students and teachers and their ability to access mobile learning devices:

  • The state does not have accurate data on device or internet access for school staff.
  • 850 (32%) schools do not have enough computers for every student.
  • 1,816 (70%) schools do not have a device for each student across all grades.
  • 2,204 (80%) schools do not have programs in place to send devices home for all grades.
  • 1,294 (49%) schools do not have alternate accommodations for students without internet.
  • 295 (11%) schools do not have a digital learning management system.
  • 485 (18%) schools report 50% or more of their students do not have internet access at home.