PW Exclusive: After COVID-19 clusters, UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Chair appeals for local decision on in-person instruction, dorms

Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, has appealed to the UNC Board of Governors to allow the school’s chancellor to choose whether to end in-person instruction and on-campus for the fall semester.

Chapman’s letter, dated Saturday, came after the school confirmed its third cluster of infections in two days.

Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty

The third cluster — defined by the state Department of Health and Human Services as five or more infections in a related location — was at the Sigma Nu Fraternity, located at 109 Fraternity Court in Chapel Hill. The school is not releasing information on how many infections are within the cluster.

The new cluster follows Friday’s announcement of two clusters in the Ehringhaus Residence Hall and Granville Towers.

On-campus sources with direct knowledge of the numbers told Policy Watch Saturday the three clusters represent dozens of infections, with contact tracing seeking to determine wider exposure.

“In the last two days, within the first week of classes, already three clusters of students that are positive for the virus have been identified,” Chapman wrote in her letter. “Two in dormitories and now one at a fraternity house. These are likely the tip of the iceberg and we will see more in coming days.”

“We knew there would be positive cases on our campus,” Chapman wrote. “But clusters, five or more people that are connected in one place, are a different story. The presence of clusters should be triggering reconsideration of residential, in-person learning. However, moving to remote instruction cannot be done without your approval.”

As Policy Watch was first to report last month, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey told chancellors at the 17 UNC System campuses they would not have the authority to make final decisions about ending on-campus instruction and residential living due to infections. Those decisions will be made by the board and UNC System President Peter Hans, Ramsey said.

“I asked President Hans about our leader’s level of independence at our Faculty Assembly meeting last week using the example of the Orange County Health Department’s letter dated July 29th in which they recommend five weeks of remote instruction,” Chapman said. “And he confirmed that such a choice would require a ‘conversation’ with the UNC System Office and the BOG, meaning that our Chancellor does not have the authority to do what he believes, given the best advice he is being given, is right. This is an untenable situation in which to put our leadership and I ask that you change it right away.”

Policy Watch reached out to the UNC System office Friday for comment from Hans or board of governors Chairman Randy Ramsey and to ask whether the clusters would lead to a reconsideration of in-person instruction and on-campus housing. Policy Watch was told to direct questions to UNC Chapel Hill.

Read Chapman’s letter to the Board of Governors, in its entirely, here.

A special meeting for the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee will be held Monday.

At a June meeting of the committee, UNC medical experts talked about potential “off-ramps” on UNC-Chapel Hill’s road to return.

Of particular concern, all agreed: clusters of infection.

“We have worried a lot about clusters of infections,” said Dr. Mike Cohen, director of UNC’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Disease. “We think clusters of infections would represent either we don’t understand math — which would be a terrible thing to happen — or that we’ve allowed density to occur that we’ve tried desperately to avoid.”

Dr. Erica Pettigrew, medical director of both the Orange County Health Department and Occupational Health at UNC Health Care, agreed.

“Any time we see a cluster, that’s when we have the legal mandate to go in and investigate, figure out what infection control issues need to be implemented and do things need to be shut down,” Pettigrew said.

Over the weekend, as photos and videos of student parties without distancing or masks made the rounds online, prominent faculty members expressed regret for deciding to teach in person this semester and frustration with the way the school’s reopening has been conducted.

UNC Law Professor Eric Muller, a member of the Faculty Executive Committee, took to Twitter to say he felt “anger and disgust” that the university failed to make a clear and specific public statement of what would trigger the end of on-campus instruction and housing, to include ethicists as part of its decision making on re-opening and establish a program of testing all those returning to campus.

Those were not uncommon sentiments among students, faculty and staff as the school failed to make it through its first week of classes without multiple infection clusters in student housing, always one of the areas of highest concern in the reopening plan.

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