UNC System-wide petition urges a move online rather than return to campuses

This week a new UNC System-wide petition is calling on the system’s leaders to reconsider a mass return to the 17 UNC campuses next month as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen in North Carolina.

As the state continues to post record days of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations the faculty, students and staff at the universities have continued to push back against a plan for students to return to face-to-face instruction while living in full capacity dorms on campus. The new petition makes specific requests in three areas:

1. Move online: Because the COVID-19 epidemic is not yet under control and because communities surrounding our campuses are put at risk by campus activities, it is unsafe for students and instructors to return to face-to-face instruction; online or remote teaching should be the default mode on all campuses during the fall 2020 semester.

2. Be transparent: Increase participation of faculty, students and staff in decision-making and improve communication between and among administrators, faculty, students and staff.

3. Protect the health and economic well-being of the university community:  Routinely test individuals, implement thorough and rigorous contact tracing, and provide protective equipment to all those who must be on campus. Ensure the continued employment of campus employees. We oppose all COVID-19-related furloughs and terminations of vulnerable workers and those who are essential to the core academic mission.

Dr. Cat Warren

The petition included more than 30 initial signatures from professors at UNC-Chapel, Hill, N.C. State, Western Carolina University, Appalachian State University, N.C. Central University, UNC-Wilmington, UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina University and Fayetteville State University. As of Wednesday afternoon it had gathered more than 400 signatures.

Cat Warren, a professor of English at N.C State, said it’s increasingly clear that bringing students back with 60% of classes face-to-face — a number that’s been suggested at several UNC System schools — is simply not safe under the current conditions.

“We’re seeing enormous spikes in infection and hospitalization in North Carolina and we’re certainly seeing younger people getting infected,” Warren said. “I think the cautionary principle should be in play here rather than the gung-ho thing of, ‘We’re going to give the students that university campus experience that they’ve been wanting but they may end up dying for.'”

It also needs to be clearer who is making some of the decisions about safety, Warren said. Faculty and staff across the system feel they have not been properly consulted and aren’t certain which mandates are coming down from the UNC System office and which are happening at a campus level.

“These are state schools,” Warren said. “The taxpayer is significant here. The degree to which there should be transparency, that there’s an obligation for transparency, is clear to me. But we’re really not getting that. There seems to be a jumble of recommendations.”

Hybrid courses should allow a small number of students and faculty who need to return to campus to do so, Warren said — but that shouldn’t be the default mode and expectation. Instead, the schools should invest in and concentrate on giving students the best online experience they can during this time of national crisis.

“I think the kinds of resources being put into building a weird little false front that pretends it’s safety would be so much better used in doing a deep dive into the kinds of online resources that could really help students and faculty,” Warren said.

“I don’t think our petition is saying ‘shut the entire thing down,'” Warren said. “But the plan we have now is a recipe for disaster — both for the universities and the communities around them.”

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