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UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health moves to online instruction for first three weeks of semester

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health (Photo:UNC.edu)

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health is moving instruction online for the first three weeks of the Spring semester, which begins for undergraduates Monday.

The announcement came late Friday in an email from the school’s dean, Dr. Barbara Rimer and  Dr. Laura Linnan,  senior associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs. Their message cited and linked to Policy Watch’s recent story on UNC epidemiologists’ projections that under current conditions the campus could see more than 22,000 COVID-19 infections  in the next month, due to the more infectious Omicron variant.

“At Gillings, our leadership team has actively monitored this situation,” the message read. “We have sought and received input from faculty, staff, students, and colleagues across campus. We have been in regular contact with our infectious disease experts here at Gillings and on campus and know from them that we can expect high rates of infection this month. The safety and health of students, staff and faculty remain paramount.”

“For this reason, we believe the best public health decision for our staff, students and faculty is to adopt remote instruction for the first couple of weeks this semester with the full intention of returning to in-person instruction, unless public health and safety dictate otherwise, the week that begins with Monday, January 31,” the message read. “This decision is consistent with a consensus vote of our school leadership team. We know it will disappoint some that we will start entirely in remote status, but the intent remains to be in-person by the end of January.”

Read the full email here.

Federal health officials believe the COVID-19 omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant, but could cause milder symptoms. However, omicron has led to record numbers of infections in the state, as well as high rates of hospitalizations; the severity of the disease can vary depending on a person’s vaccination status and underlying health conditions.

A desire to return to in-person instruction at UNC System schools has clashed with caution over the current wave of infections. While faculty and students at a number of the system’s schools have pushed for a fully remote beginning to the semester, administration at Chapel Hill instead decided to leave decisions about modes of instruction up to deans at each of the schools at the university. While some deans are allowing more flexibility than others, most are citing university administration’s assurance that the school’s own health experts have assured them that in-person instruction can be done safely. Opinions among deans could shift with Gillings, home to some of those experts, now opting to go fully remote for the balance of the month. Many faculty on campus said Friday and Saturday they hope the decision will serve as an example to their own schools, whose leaders have warned against substituting one’s own judgement for that of scientists and medical experts.

Last week, after Policy Watch published its story on disturbing projections of the number of infections on campus in as students returned to campus, the school disabled its COVID-19 dashboard, which reports numbers of infections reported on campus. The school initially gave no explanation for doing so, then posted a statement saying that the dashboard would be updated again beginning Monday. The school has since said they are reevaluating what information is relevant to report given the Omicron variant’s difference from previous variants of the disease and will make that decision in consultation with the UNC System office and the state Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS has not disabled or altered its own dashboard and other UNC System schools have so far continued updating their own without unexplained pauses or alterations to how the information is reported to the public.

The move led some faculty members and students frustrated with the level of transparency on decisions about monitoring and reporting to begin crowdsourcing the archives of the dashboards at each school so that they can document how reporting changes.

At North Carolina State University, the system’s largest campus by enrollment,  students and faculty members are pushing the school’s administration for as much flexibility as faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. In an e-mail last week, representatives from the campus’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors urged university leaders to allow faculty to decide their mode of instruction during the current spike in infections.

That email, in full:

Chancellor Woodson and Provost Arden,

We understand the pandemic and recent COVID variants have created continued challenges, particularly as we begin to prepare for the start of the new semester. While we believe a delayed start would have been the best approach for handling the latest COVID surges, we now understand that it is unlikely we will change course a few days before classes begin. However, the NC State AAUP Chapter leadership and members want to make you aware of some troubling communications from our colleagues, and to make what we view as a reasonable  request.

Several faculty colleagues have expressed grave concerns about teaching in-person classes. They cite concerns about teaching to a full room of undergraduates and returning home to elderly parents, small children who are not able to get vaccinated, pregnant spouses, and immunocompromised family members.

Almost equally as troubling is the message these faculty members receive when they express these concerns to their department heads and/or deans. These leaders have told them there is a process to request a change in class delivery but also discouraged them from applying or told them not to apply at all. At the same time, department chairs told many of these faculty members there is no chance their request will be approved. Telling faculty members not to apply for change of delivery mode or telling them there is no chance of getting approved if they apply, in effect, makes the request process a complete farce.

We would also like to note that several faculty members were despondent and expressed that they felt as though University leaders did not care for their health and well-being. Others were dismayed that colleagues across the UNC System had campus openings delayed or were given flexibility to move their courses online, while NC State faculty were shown no such consideration.

Given these concerns and the recent spikes in COVID infections, we strongly urge you to allow faculty members to decide their mode of course delivery, instead of going through an approval process that requires the Provost to ultimately approve their request. Faculty should only have to provide their department head with a good faith explanation as to why they are changing their delivery method. In other words, our request is simple: treat faculty like the professionals they are and give them the authority to choose their course delivery method.

We have included all faculty senators, along with our chapter members and other interested faculty on this email to make them aware of their colleagues’ concerns.

Thank you for your attention. We look forward to your response.

Regards,

Paul Umbach
Professor and NC State AAUP chapter president

David Ambaras
Professor and NC State AAUP chapter vice president

Stephen Porter
Professor and NC State AAUP chapter treasurer-secretary

 

How to track what’s happening at other campuses:
Last week Luke Carman, a PhD student at N.C. State and co-chair of the UE 150 UNC System Council, created an online tracker to document and publicize how each of the 16 UNC System campuses is responding to the Omicron variant through policies, health initiatives and decisions about modes of instruction. Carman said he began the work as a reaction to the lack of easily accessible public information about the steps being taken at and the shifts at each school.

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