UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Chair: Two different COVID realities on campus, faculty “in the dark,” campus “without a clear map”

The chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty is expressing frustration over the state of COVID-19 communication on campus, complaining of a return to a “toxically positive” direction that masks the problems  and creates “two different realities” while the campus is “without a clear map.”

In an August 19 email to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin, Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman wrote she feels “in the dark” and wonders whether the lack of communication from the school’s top leadership is deliberate.

There have been 220 positive cases on campus so far in the month of August, according to Monday numbers from the school’s COVID-19 dashboard – 174 students and 46 employees. There have been 67 student positives since classes began last Wednesday.

Last Fall, before vaccines were available, the school sent most on-campus students home and ended most on-campus instruction after 130 students tested positive on campus in the semester’s first week. The school’s chancellor has said there is no plan for such an “off-ramp” this semester.

The school reported its second cluster of infections over the weekend,  this one featuring six infections at at the Avery Residence Hall. Earlier this month, the campus saw a cluster of infections traced to an event at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

[UPDATE 7 p.m.: After this story’s initial publication, UNC-Chapel Hill Media Relations got in touch with Policy Watch to comment on the numbers and characterization of the school’s decision to move to a largely virtual Fall semester in 2020. 

Leslie Minton, associate director of Media Relations as UNC-Chapel Hill, said it is misleading to mention the number of students who tested positive in the first week of classes of Fall 2020 without noting that the overall infection numbers for the first 23 days of August were much higher – 652 total.

“It’s also important to note that the decision to move remote in 2020 was made based on multiple factors, not just case counts,” Minton said. “In fall 2020, when Chancellor Guskiewicz announced the shift to remote learning, he shared data in his email to campus, which you can read online. At that time, the University’s quarantine and isolation space was approaching capacity. As Chancellor Guskiewicz noted in his August 2020 message, the University had 117 students in isolation and 349 in quarantine in fall 2020, including on- and off-campus students, and was running out of space.”

“Today, quarantine and isolation space is not nearing capacity,” Minton said. “The University has 7 students in quarantine and 4 in isolation on campus.”]

UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman.

“[Campus and Community Advisory Committee] leadership has not been invited to meet with the [Roadmap Implementation Team] or anyone else as we were last fall,” Chapman wrote “The meeting last week was so upsetting it took me several days before I could even think coherently about it. CCAC is no longer functioning in a productive way. It is now thrown together at the last minute with no  advance conversation or planning and no follow-up. ”

“My own standing meetings with Kevin [Guskiewicz] have been rescheduled multiple times making me wonder whether the lack of communication is deliberate,” Chapman wrote. “It is becoming difficult to know what to say to people about where you are and the communication that is veering into the toxically positive once more.”

In Chapman’s email, obtained this week by Policy Watch, she shares her own experience of how infections have already impacted her department.

“In the very small doctoral program that I oversee 2 out of 10 students who are currently in course work have already had to participate in class virtually because of significant COVID exposures,” Chapman wrote. “In addition, one faculty member thought they would have to isolate but got back a negative test in time to teach, and a staff member is sick at home with a break-through infection. That’s just in my small world over the course of one week.  I can’t imagine what is happening elsewhere. “The lack of clear communication from school leadership has become a problem, Chapman wrote, with many now feeling they do not have input into how the campus is handling COVID in the current semester.”

[UPDATE 7 p.m.: After this story’s initial publication UNC-Chapel Hill Media Relations reached out to Policy Watch with a response to Chapman’s characterization of the lack of communication from the school’s top leaders. 

“Regarding communications, the University communicates frequently with the campus community about the pandemic and operational updates, including directly with faculty leadership,” Minton said. “Many messages are online at https://carolinatogether.unc.edu/messages/. Additionally, the Chancellor and Provost have spoken directly in recent weeks to groups like the Faculty Executive Committee and the Campus Community Advisory Committee.”]

In the email Chapman took issue with the school’s promotion of the tradition of students gathering at the campus’ Old Well to take a sip from a fountain at the beginning of the semester for good luck. Images of students gathered in a long line to do so the first day of classes created concern on campus, including among faculty at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. The school said the ritual is part of a normal return to campus and could be done safely as surface transmission of COVID-19 is rare.

“The scene at the Old Well was truly unbelievable,” Chapman said. “The visual is problematic even if that is not likely to be site of transmission as it echoes the water pump/cholera connection that is the foundation of modern epidemiology.”

The event also does not appear to have adhered to Centers for Disease Control guidelines for safe watering points during the COVID-19 pandemic, which advise against gathering in groups and suggests keeping 6 feet of distance between those drinking from the fountain.

Chapman and other faculty have also expressed frustration at what they say are confusing and inadequate guidelines for notification of infections. Among the complaints are a policy that faculty will not be informed if a student in their class tests positive or given any notice if a student is cleared to return to class.

Chapman wrote that she is not in favor of going to all remote teaching without a mandate and believes instructors and students can stay safe in classes as long as they are adhering to the school’s mask mandate.

“But staff are probably not as safe, particularly those who are unvaccinated,” Chapman wrote. “I am also aware – although not from either of you – that you had to fight very hard to get an indoor mask mandate and I am so grateful that you did. ”

But that’s not enough on its own, Chapman wrote.

“Surely there is a way to balance twin realities of being happy to see people back on campus and acknowledging how complicated and difficult all of this for instructors, staff, and for students who are concerned for their own safety and that of others,” Chapman wrote. ” The student I worked with this afternoon, whose roommates are both positive and symptomatic although vaccinated, was distraught thinking she may have exposed her classmates and her instructors yesterday. The staff member I heard from is quite ill, although vaccinated, and did not know about the Regneron infusion site at the hospital.  She was also asking whether break-through infections are being tracked on campus.  I had no idea.”

The lack of information about essential elements of COVID preparedness are concerning, Chapman wrote.

“Somehow, we have got to acknowledge the reality of all of this, let people know more about what they should do when, what resources are available, etc,” she wrote.  “And, we need to make sure we have everything we need in place to keep this under control. Do we have enough quarantine/isolation space? Contact tracers so that we can get to people quickly?  I was pleased to see the new communication about twice per week testing.  That is certainly a needed step.”

Chapman also expressed concern about gatherings and sporting events as the semester progresses.

“But questions are going to continue if we continue down this ‘normal’ road without a clear map,” Chapman wrote.  “Unmasked, packed football stadiums would seem ill-advised. One idea would be to convene a “community conversation” as we did last summer, but not if there can’t be frank communication about the good and the bad of our current situation.  I stand ready to help, but I can’t do very much here in the dark.”

On Sunday The Daily Tar Heel, the campus’ student newspaper, published an editorial in which it also criticized the lack of clear communication and transparency from campus leadership on issues surrounding COVID-19.

The editorial called for mandatory vaccinations, a position student and faculty groups have also supported. The UNC Board of Governors have, so far, not allowed campuses to mandate vaccination. Instead, campuses are asking students and employees to attest as to whether they have been vaccinated. As of Monday, the school says 88 percent of students and 81 percent of faculty and staff have attested to being vaccinated. Students who do not attest that they are vaccinated must now be tested twice a week, up from the school’s original plan of testing once per week.

Without substantive changes in the way the school is handling the pandemic this semester, the Daily Tar Heel editorial said, a return to virtual classes is inevitable.

[UPDATE 8/24: After publication of this story, Policy Watch spoke to Chapman about her email.

While Chapman said she did not intend for her communication to the chancellor and provost to become public, she said she stands by its sentiments. But that’s not the full story, Chapman said. Shortly after she sent the email, Guskiewicz called her and they had a productive conversation about COVID protocols, better communication with faculty and staff and how advisory groups can work better to bring more voices into the campus planning process as the semester progresses.

Chapman said she’ll continue to push for more faculty and staff involvement in pandemic policy on campus and continue to express their sentiments to campus leaders.]

Read Chapman’s full letter below.

Dear Kevin and Bob:

People from various quarters are contacting me feeling like there are two different realities on campus – the view from the street in which everything looks delightfully normal and the view behind the scenes in which leaders are scrambling to respond to scenarios as they are unfolding. Rumors are coming out of Nutrition about a cluster. People keep sending the various and not very consistent guidance that is coming from individual schools and departments. In the very small doctoral program that I oversee 2 out of 10 students who are currently in course work have already had to participate in class virtually because of significant COVID exposures. In addition, one faculty member thought they would have to isolate but got back a negative test in time to teach, and a staff member is sick at home with a break-through infection. That’s just in my small world over the course of one week. I can’t imagine what is happening elsewhere.

CCAC leadership has not been invited to meet with the RIT or anyone else as we were last fall. The meeting last week was so upsetting it took me several days before I could even think coherently about it. CCAC is no longer functioning in a productive way. It is now thrown together at the last minute with no advance conversation or planning and no follow-up.

My own standing meetings with Kevin have been rescheduled multiple times making me wonder whether the lack of communication is deliberate. It is becoming difficult to know what to say to people about where you are and the communication that is veering into the toxically positive once more. The scene at the Old Well was truly unbelievable. The visual is problematic even if that is not likely to be site of transmission as it echoes the water pump/cholera connection that is the foundation of modern epidemiology.

As you know, I am not in favor of going remote without a mandate and I believe that vaccinated instructors are safe in the classroom teaching mask to mask. But staff are probably not as safe, particularly those who are unvaccinated. I am also aware – although not from either of you – that you had to fight very hard to get an indoor mask mandate and I am so grateful that you did.

Surely there is a way to balance twin realities of being happy to see people back on campus and acknowledging how complicated and difficult all of this for instructors, staff, and for students who are concerned for their own safety and that of others. The student I worked with this afternoon, whose roommates are both positive and symptomatic although vaccinated, was distraught thinking she may have exposed her classmates and her instructors yesterday. The staff member I heard from is quite ill, although vaccinated, and did not know about the Regneron infusion site at the hospital. She was also asking whether break-through infections are being tracked on campus. I had no idea.

Somehow, we have got to acknowledge the reality of all of this, let people know more about what they should do when, what resources are available, etc. And, we need to make sure we have everything we need in place to keep this under control. Do we have enough quarantine/isolation space? Contact tracers so that we can get to people quickly? I was pleased to see the new communication about twice per week testing. That is certainly a needed step.

But questions are going to continue if we continue down this “normal” road without a clear map. Unmasked, packed football stadiums would seem ill-advised. One idea would be to convene a “community conversation” as we did last summer, but not if there can’t be frank communication about the good and the bad of our current situation. I stand ready to help, but I can’t do very much here in the dark. And, although I do not speak for them, I imagine Katie and Lamar, copied on this message, might feel the same.

Mimi

Mimi V. Chapman, MSW, Ph.D.

Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Service Policy Information

Associate Dean for Doctoral Education

School of Social Work

Chair of the Faculty, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

919-843-8282

twitter: @mimivchapman

personal blog: Sympathetic Ink found at https://sympathetic-ink.blog

pronouns: she, her, hers

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