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UNC Law School students push for remote instruction as state faces COVID numbers

Undergraduates return to classes at UNC-Chapel Hill Monday in the face of record COVID-19 numbers and disturbing projections for what the Omicron variant could mean for on-campus infections this semester.

Students at UNC’s law school return to classes on campus today.

As Policy Watch has reported, the university has given the deans of individual schools the authority to temporarily modify instruction in reaction to the current record surge.

In a letter sent last weekend, five law student groups asked their dean to do just that.

From the letter, dated Jan.1:

In the wake of the recent surge in cases of the Omicron variant, we are writing to demand that at least two weeks of classes for the Spring 2022 semester be conducted virtually across the entire law school. Case numbers in North Carolina and Orange County are at a record high and are not expected to peak until later in the month, with community spread reported even among vaccinated, boosted, and masked community members.

Postponing the start of in-person classes by only a few weeks could make a dramatic difference in preventing transmission both in the law school and in the community at large. Statistically speaking, many law school students will be returning to campus having been exposed to COVID-19 and, with no testing requirement in place for most of us, may not know they carry the virus. Especially given UNC’s decision to limit asymptomatic testing, it is incredibly irresponsible to allow in-person classes at this time.

Other schools both in the area and across the country are starting the semester remotely. Duke, our neighbor of just a few miles, recently announced that all classes will be remote until January 18. In its email to students, Duke cited that “[o]n Thursday, the state of North Carolina reported the highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, representing a 60% increase over the previous one-day record.” Therefore, “in order to protect the health of [its] campus and community and to ensure the continuity of campus operations,” Duke decided to extend its remote period.

Meanwhile, Harvard, UCLA, and at least 24 other private and public law schools will hold the first few weeks of classes remotely. We should follow the leadership of our peer law schools to reduce risk of transmission for our communities, not only in Chapel Hill, but across the Triangle.

An email from University administration Friday morning gave individual deans the discretion to “temporarily modify modes of instruction.” We are asking for the law school deans to use this discretion to make a more protective choice than main campus by starting the semester remotely as we did last spring when case numbers were lower than they are now. The decision to do otherwise, and to shift the responsibility for risk mitigation to individual professors, is unacceptable and will create piece-meal policies that endanger our entire community.

 

The letter was signed by the UNC National Lawyers Guild (NLG), UNC Black Law Students Association (BLSA), UNC Lambda Law Students Association. UNC Hispanic/Latino Law Students’ Association (HLLSA) and the UNC Asian American Law Students Association (AALSA).

Read the entire letter here.

UNC School of Law Dean Martin Brinkley responded in a letter dated Jan. 2, thanking students for their letter and saying he wished to be transparent about his decision making.

From that letter:

“I and other members of our administration team share your concerns about the Omicron COVID variant. Like you, we are people with families and complicated lives, affected by the pandemic as you are. None of us knows what will happen in the next several weeks. None of us is a public health expert or physician. None of us in a position to substitute our judgment for that of public health experts and physicians., tempting as that might be in light of the news reports that are available to us all. We must depend on the administration of the University, which has access to qualified experts, to assess the risks Omicron poses to the health of our community.

Last Thursday I attended a meeting with the Provost, the other deans and the medical experts who are leading the University’s pandemic response. The outcome of that meeting was the delegation of discretion to the deans to temporarily modify modes of instruction. Had the Chancellor and Provost believed that in person classes could not be held with reasonable assurances of safety, I have no doubt that they would have done all in their power to safeguard our community with a different strategy.

I have found the approach being taken by other graduate and professional schools that are starting classes next week instructive. From conversation I had yesterday with Dean Burks at the medical school and Dean Koshuba at the pharmacy school, it is my understanding that both of those schools will be holding classes in person starting this week. Our approach makes that possible, but adds flexibility and relies on the faculty to determine when that flexibility should be applied to the circumstances of a particular course.”

Brinkley went on to say the public health situation is fluid and there is no firm idea when the public health situation may be clearer. Given the uncertainty, he said, he believes the decision on modes of instruction is best left to professors.

Read the entire letter here.

 

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