UNC-Chapel Hill Provost on failed reopening plan: “I don’t apologize for trying”

UNC-Chapel Hill announced Monday it would move all its undergraduate classes online and begin cutting its dorm occupancy to a minimum. The move, which essentially embraces the cautious approach urged by the Orange County Health Department last month, came after the school reported 135 positive COVID-19 tests in the week since in-person classes began.

At a virtual Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday afternoon, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin faced criticism over the failed reopening plan but expressed little regret.

“You walk across campus and what you observed was this high level of compliance across campus,” Guskiewicz said, noting that over the summer and into the first week of classes students seemed to be sticking to masking and distancing rules established by the school.

But as students attended parties and large social gatherings, that compliance didn’t continue, resulting in four clusters of infections in student housing — three in residence halls and one at a fraternity house.

“It’s the socialization piece that began to take place outside the boundaries of campus, bringing that back into the residence halls,” Guskiewicz said.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

Student leaders, undergraduate and graduate student leaders and the Orange County Health Department all warned of exactly that scenario in the weeks and months leading up to the reopening. Guskiewicz and his leadership team did not accept their advice and recommendations. Instead they chose to believe students would follow the cautious approach that would allow the university to reopen with a full capacity dorm plan that shrunk to around 60 percent occupancy only when enough concerned students cancelled their housing contracts before move-in.

The Daily Tar Heel, the campus’ independent student newspaper, published a scathing editorial over the weekend that described the situation as a “clusterfuck.”

“We all saw this coming” the editorial said.

“The administration continues to prove they have no shame, and the bar for basic decency keeps getting lower,” the editorial said. “They chose to ignore the Orange County Health Department, which recommended that the University restrict on-campus housing to at-risk students and implement online-only instruction for the first five weeks of the semester. They chose to ignore the guidance of the CDC, which placed the University’s housing plan in the ‘highest-risk’ category.”

Guskiewicz described this episode as  one of the most trying of his career, if not the most trying. But he continued to defend the university’s plan Monday, characterizing this week’s abrupt reversal of course as the often discussed “off ramp” he and other administrators always said was possible but which they repeatedly refused to take before multiple infection clusters.

“We will continue to learn from this,” Guskiewicz said. “That’s what I was trying to say before — what a great research university does is, we tried to move forward. And we put a plan in place. And we’re going to learn from it, adapt from it. Cause this thing’s not going away. We are going to be sitting here likely in December and January and February talking about some of these issue and how we move forward as a campus and trying to help other universities move forward.”

Provost Blouin said  the university began from a certain set of assumptions when it began putting together its return plan months ago.

“We were expecting — I think all the forecasts back then indicated that by the summer we would have a relatively low density of virus and a high availability of testing,” Blouin said. “That didn’t turn out quite the way we had expected. In many respects the roadmap was built upon some of those assumptions.”

“But I guess I don’t apologize, you know, for trying,” Blouin said. “For giving this campus the opportunity to return to its mission we have, in the interests of the people of North Carolina. I really do believe that we had — if the all the earlier assumptions would have played through — that we would have had a shot at making this work.”

Faculty and students pushed back on that. Carrying through with a plan built on early assumptions it was obvious had not panned out is nothing of which to be proud, they said. It hurt the university’s reputation and relationship with the community, they said.

“We’re in the news every day — we’re being mocked,”  said Professor Jennifer Larson, undergraduate studies director in the school’s English department. “The community is upset. People are afraid to go down to Franklin Street, afraid to in the community. What steps can we take to repair those relationships, maybe repair our national reputation?”

Students now facing going home are “stressed out, nervous, scared,” Larson said — concerned they will of infect loved ones in their hometowns after having come to what became a COVID-19 hotspot only to return home when this experiment failed.

Dr. Joseph Eron, chief of the UNC Department of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases, recommended students quarantine for 14 days, staying in separate rooms and observing masking and hand-washing techniques, to avoid transmission.

The school is going to attempt to move as many students off campus as it can — suggesting they go to permanent addresses, not temporary addresses within the Chapel Hill community.

Exceptions will be made for student athletes, international students, students who do not otherwise have a safe housing option one with stable Internet access. The hope, administrators said, is to get the on-campus student population down to between 1,500 and 2,000 students. That would allow for single-room occupancy and cut down on the sharing of restrooms. Students now in isolation or quarantine — on campus and off, in local hotels the school utilized when quarantine and isolation dorm space ran low — will be able to stay throughout their period of isolation.

UNC Law professor Eric Muller suggested some days off for students might be necessary. All undergraduate classes will move online starting Wednesday, as students are also trying to arrange their moves off-campus.

Guskiewicz and Blouin said no break in classes is now planned. Faculty were told to plan this semester’s courses with the idea that this sort of pivot would be necessary, they said.

Muller took to Twitter after the meeting to say he was stunned that students wouldn’t be given a single day this week to deal with all this, a move he said was “very disturbing and seems to lack emotional intelligence.”

The question of tuition also remained unanswered. The deadline for paying the semester’s tuition was the end of the day Monday — a deadline many noted coincided with the school’s decision to move courses online. When asked whether the deadline would be extended or students could withdraw and expect refunds, Guskiewicz initially seemed to suggest the deadline would be flexible.

“That deadline is not…um…we won’t hold to it,” Guskiewicz said, before conflating tuition with housing refunds, which he said would be issued.

“Well have to look at that,” Guskiewicz said of tuition.

The UNC Board of Governors voted last month not to refund, pro-rate or decrease tuition or fees at any UNC system schools if courses had to be moved online.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis.

That’s a move that was opposed by UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis.

On Monday Kotis reiterated that position, saying students who moved to campus expecting a semester of at least some in-person courses and are now having to move home again should be able to withdraw now if they choose without losing tuition.

“They should be offered full refunds,” Kotis said. “It’s a little annoying that people were told one thing, they moved to campus, now they’re told another.”

Students should be allowed to withdraw and come back in the spring or next fall with no penalty — including tuition, dining, housing and most fees.

“I also don’t think we should be charging them full tuition and fees for things they won’t be using — athletic fees, for instance, student organizations — if they’re taking online classes,” Kotis said. “Something like a student technology fee, you probably need to pay that.”

The board of governors did not vote on Chapel Hill being allowed to move online, Kotis said. He wasn’t sure it was the right decision, he said. But since the university didn’t do mass testing when students returned they didn’t have the data to decide whether the 135 infections actually came from socializing off-campus or living in dorms.

“We don’t know how many were infected when they arrived,” Kotis said.

The universities are in a better position to help control student behaviors in environments they control, Kotis said. Living in apartment complexes isn’t likely to be much safer than living on campus, he said, and off-hours socializing isn’t likely to stop just because students aren’t on campus anymore.

“We’re kind of kicking the problem to let them deal with it on their own,” Kotis said. “And we’re saying we’re doing that to minimize the exposure to faculty and staff or liability…I don’t know.”

If campuses are to be shut down, Kotis said, he believes the order should come from local health departments or Governor Roy Cooper.

“But they don’t want to take responsibility for that,” Kotis said. “They want us to take responsibility for it.”

UNC System President Peter Hans said Monday that Chapel Hill’s move online would not impact other universities in the system who have not, so far, experienced the same problems.

“All students must continue to wear facial coverings and practice social distancing as part of their personal responsibility, particularly in off-campus settings,” Hans said in a written statement “Taking personal responsibility and enforcing community standards are essential for the success of this semester and for protecting public health.

“Each campus is different, and I expect situations to evolve differently,” Hans said. “In any circumstance, we will be grounded by reliable public health data and prevailing local health conditions. I will continue to stay in close contact with our chancellors and fully support their efforts to fulfill our core educational mission in safe learning environments.”

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