Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

Judge reconsidering whether to intervene in DPS prison response to COVID-19

The plaintiffs in a court hearing Wednesday over the threat of COVID-19 to incarcerated populations painted a stark picture of what it’s like to be in a North Carolina prison during a pandemic.

Social distancing isn’t possible; the Department of Public Safety (DPS) doesn’t have a plan to further decrease the population and is in fact planning on increasing it (by 1,700 to 1,800 people); the rate of infection in the state prisons is unknown and DPS doesn’t have a comprehensive testing plan in place; and DPS isn’t taking special steps to protect its most vulnerable incarcerated people from the deadly virus.

Leah Kang, a staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina representing the plaintiffs, highlighted stories of incarcerated peoples’ deaths, but also of those who are sick who have been denied or delayed medical care and those who had COVID-19 but “recovered” and will continue to suffer long term and permanently debilitating effects from the virus.

“There is preventable human suffering and death that has and will continue to occur in DPS prisons,” Kang said. “It calls upon this court for a remedy. … This is cruel and unusual punishment, your honor.”

This is the second time Kang has argued in front of Judge Vince Rozier in Wake County Superior Court asking him to grant a preliminary injunction and appoint a special master to help DPS figure out how to implement proper social distancing and prioritize releasing medically vulnerable incarcerated people, as well as those individuals who are close to their release date.

Attorneys for DPS told another story — the agency is complying with, and in some cases exceeding, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yes, the agency has resumed transfers of incarcerated people from prison to prison, said the attorneys, but it has been taking precautions to keep them safe and transparent with the public about the policy changes during the pandemic.

Orlando Rodriguez, Assistant Attorney General, said social distancing is possible in prisons, just not at night because there isn’t space to move bunks far enough apart — but it doesn’t mean there aren’t options for people to distance in other ways. He also said the plaintiffs’ requests for relief are based on the premise that public health best practices are a standard of law, but they aren’t, and the constitution doesn’t require perfection. Read more

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill instructor petition calls for masks, testing, option to teach online-only

As UNC-Chapel Hill faculty continue to question the plan to re-open to on campus instruction Aug. 10, they have launched a petition calling for specific guarantees for instructors.

The petition asks for school administration to ensure several precautions:

  • No instructor will be required to teach in person or be required to disclose personal health concerns.
  • All members of the UNC-CH community will be required to wear masks and practice physical distancing in classrooms and public settings.
  • All staff, students and faculty on campus will be tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 in the first weeks of classes and that that school develops plan for regular and ongoing testing.

As of Wednesday morning more than 240 instructors had signed the petition, which comes on the heels of sometimes tense faculty meetings with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin that left many professors feeling uneasy about the university’s plan.

Last week Guskiewicz told a joint meeting of the chancellor’s advisory and faculty executive committees that the university will have a community expectation that students, faculty and staff will practice social distancing and wear masks in public settings but it would not likely be enforceable as a strict rule under the school’s honor code.

This week Blouin seemed to walk that back, saying professors should insist students wear masks in class and suggesting there should be consequences for those who don’t comply.

Both men hedged or refused to answer when asked about how many courses instructors will be expected to teach in-person rather than online. They also wouldn’t answer questions about how many students, staff or faculty would need to be infected before the school would go back to online-only instruction.

COVID-19, News

Cooper rejects GOP’s calls for a full-scale convention in August

Gov. Roy Cooper and state DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen at a recent briefing

Gov. Roy Cooper responded today to calls for the Republican National Convention to proceed as normal, rejecting the idea of a “full convention.”

On Saturday, Ronna McDaniel and Marcia Kelly, chairwoman and the CEO of the Republican National Convention, respectively, sent Cooper a letter asking for a “full convention” with hotels, restaurants and bars reopened at full capacity to serve “19,000 delegates, alternate delegates, staff, volunteers, elected officials and guests.”

Cooper had previously stated that his administration was waiting to hear from RNC organizers about various “options” they were considering to pull off the event.

In their letter, McDaniel and Kelly listed their “proactive” plans, including “temperature checks, testing before and during the Convention, making masks available for those who request one, and providing enhanced sanitization of public areas.”

The letter came a day after Cooper and President Donald Trump spoke on the phone. On that phone call, Trump demanded a convention with no masks or social distancing.

Today, Cooper said it is “very unlikely” that the conditions surrounding COVID-19 would be favorable enough in August to ensure the kind of convention that McDaniel, Kelly and Trump want.

“We are happy to continue talking with you about what a scaled-down convention would look like and we still await your proposed plan for that,” wrote Cooper.

“Neither public health officials nor I will risk the health and safety of North Carolinians by providing the guarantee you seek.”’

Click here to read Cooper’s full response.

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC System Interim President: “We can and must do better as individuals, as leaders, as a country, and as a society”

This week UNC System leaders continue to issue statements on the killing of George Floyd, police violence and the protests across the state and nation.

On Tuesday UNC System Interim President Bill Roper sent a message to the chancellors of the system’s 17 campuses.

Roper’s message, in full:

Dear Chancellors:

From last week through this week I have been reading some of your statements on Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now George Floyd. Witnessing another young black man die at the hands of those who were sworn to protect and serve has left me at a loss for words. I felt and continue to feel anger, sorrow, and grief, for our entire country, but especially for the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s stepmother, who works at Fayetteville State University.

 I want to draw your attention to some recent statements by Chancellors Martin, Gilliam, and Woodson that have given me some small degree of comfort, hope, and unvarnished truth.

UNC Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam said, “to sustain our democracy, and enact our shared values of freedom, prosperity, equality, safety, and a brighter future for our children, we must solve our problems collaboratively. People are mistaken if they believe the outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is the singular cause of protests across the country. Rather the protests are the expression of mounting frustration over the country’s inability to solve the systemic inequities central to quality of life.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

N.C. A&T University Chancellor Harold Martin wrote about the vantage point of the university, and the tools and knowledge our faculty and students can bring: “If the aftermath of George Floyd’s death is, indeed, not to be mere protest but a predicate for change in which minds, hearts, policies and practices are forever altered, it will only do so if it is nourished by knowledge and truth. Let us commit ourselves collectively to surfacing those invaluable ingredients of change.”

N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson said, “we have the responsibility to educate ourselves and those who pass through our doors to overcome ignorance, unite against intolerance, model inclusivity, and advance the dignity and power of diversity.”

 I couldn’t agree more. We can and must do better as individuals, as leaders, as a country, and as a society. I am grateful for the work you are doing to support your campus and surrounding communities. We are committed to continue providing a safe environment that is rooted in belonging and where the personal rights, lives, and dignity of everyone matters.

This is a time of deep sadness and mourning. But with knowledge comes responsibility. Now that we know, what are we going to do, each of us? Let us continue to support our communities, fight for change, and build bridges that unite us all.”

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty push back on reopening plans, may “vote with their feet”

After more than an hour of questions with UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin Monday, members of the school’s Faculty Executive Committee said they still feel confused and uncomfortable about the school’s plan to return to on-campus instruction Aug. 10.

The chief complaint: Faculty and staff were not a significant part of the UNC System decision to re-open campuses to students in the fall semester and are still unclear on how many classes they will be expected to teach in person as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The committee is working on a campus-wide faculty survey about re-opening, which could be go out by the end of this week. But several faculty members pressed Blouin on the degree to which faculty will have the autonomy to decide whether and how they teach in-person.

Beth Mayer-Davis, chair of the Department of Nutrition, said department heads are conflicted about how to balance risk when talking with faculty members about teaching under pandemic conditions.

“What would be the response, what would be your thoughts, if it turns out that…say, 90 percent of the courses end up being remote or primarily remote, partly because faculty understand we have to be able to provide remote access or options for international students who aren’t able to come to campus anyway?” Mayer-Davis said.

Beth Mayer-Davis

“It could be that faculty and students just sort of vote with their feet, so to speak,” Mayer-Davis said.

Blouin responded by framing the question primarily as a financial one.

“The problem is that if you have a very high ‘melt’ either in terms of students don’t come or students stay away … you will have some school by school issues you’ll have to face as a school,” Blouin said. “Many of those school by school issues are financial, that there will be a loss of resources. That’s not a reason to do it or not to do it but it will be an outcome, and it’s a substantial outcome.”

“When you look at the undergraduate program, I think a melt of around 10 percent translates to somewhere around $50-$75 million,” Blouin said. “Given the fact that 85 percent of our budget is generally faculty or staff salaries…you can appreciate one of the potential outcomes with student melt.”

Blouin’s comments got a number of negative responses from faculty. They said they are tired of getting financial answers when asking essential safety questions in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that threatens the health of students, faculty and staff.

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