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.”


The safest bet to protect students, faculty and staff from transmission during the ongoing pandemic would be to keep classes remote, Adams said. But students, undergraduate and graduate, remain concerned with the quality of instruction online. The hasty move to online-only education in the last semester left students feeling something was lost, Adams said.

On Monday faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill delivered a petition to the school’s administration calling for specific protections ahead of the announced return to campus.

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.


But at Monday afternoon’s meeting, health experts said that testing of asymptomatic people before and throughout the semester may not be productive.

Because the virus has a 14 day incubation window, a negative test today may give people a false sense of security, said Dr. David Weber, Medical Director, UNC Hospitals’ Departments of Hospital Epidemiology (Infection Prevention).

Mask wearing and social distancing are much stronger tools for prevention, Weber said, regardless of whether someone on campus tests negative today.

If people don’t practice physical distancing and other safety maneuvers, they could acquire the virus tomorrow,” Weber said.

Masks have been incredibly effective in preventing the spread of the disease in Asian countries , said Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases. In those countries there is a culture of wearing masks and there was little resistance to doing so in the current pandemic.

Unfortunately, he said, many Americans have been more resistant to wearing them. The difference shows in infection rates, Cohen said.

Ambiguity about what the mask policy will be at the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill level continues to frustrate faculty, staff and students.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has said there will be a “community expectation” that students will wear masks but recently told faculty he doubts the school could enforce it as part of the school’s honor code.

Bob Blouin, the school’s provost, has said professors should be able to mandate the wearing of masks in classrooms — something student leaders said they support in Monday’s meeting. But no policy currently exists allowing faculty to enforce such a mandate.

Eric Muller, a professor in UNC’s School of Law, pointed to a recent student poll that showed 84 percent of students would support returning to campus even if no mask or social distancing rules were put in place. That calls into serious question how seriously they’ll actually take such precautions, Muller said.

In Monday’s meeting faculty continued to push for clarity on how the administration will determine when to take an “off ramp” in its plan to return to on campus instruction, repeatedly asking how many students, faculty or staff will have to become infected before the school might move to online-only instruction as it did last semester.

Administrators again avoided giving a clear answer.

“I would say…the chancellor has begun, and we’ve just begun this process in kind of a pilot stage…thinking about the off-ramp and doing a series of multiple scenarios with kind of a table top exercise,” Blouin said.

The answer didn’t sit well with faculty.

In the last week North Carolina has set new single-day records for newly confirmed infections and levels of hospitalization.

As of Monday afternoon, North Carolina had 36,484 confirmed cases of the virus, 1,006 deaths and 739 people currently hospitalized.

With health metrics headed in the wrong direction, large crowds defying social distancing mandates to go to sporting events, more businesses opening and people gathering by the thousands in cities all over the state to protest police brutality and racial inequity, health experts say it may not be safe to open K-12 public schools in August.

How have UNC officials already made the decision to return in the face of those realities, faculty asked.

“You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to imagine what’s going to happen,” said Cary Levine, professor and director of undergraduate studies for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Art and Art History department.

“It’s impossible to give you an exact metric [on what would prompt a return to online-only classes] because there are just too many variables,” Cohen said.

“Provost Blouin is going to have to look at the situation in August,” Cohen said.


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