The reopening picture at this UNC campus is not a pretty one

The reopening picture at this UNC campus is not a pretty one

Appalachian State University (Website photo: AppState.edu)

As with the other UNC System campuses, students began to return to Appalachian State this week, and the circumstances surrounding their arrival ought to give all North Carolinians cause for concern.

Despite an outbreak of COVID-19 cases on the Boone campus just last week, thousands of students from across the country moved in to either off-campus apartments or small, shared dorm rooms on campus. University Housing has clear guidelines stating that students may be accompanied by only one family member or helper during move-in, but just a short drive through campus — or a glance at the scenes outside many dorms — indicated that these policies were being blatantly disregarded.

Neither students, nor family members who accompanied them, were required to take a COVID-19 test prior to returning to campus, even though many would be meeting new roommates, usually for the first time. Instead, the university promised to engage in more extensive sanitization in the dorms. However, in the early days of move-in week, it became very clear that ASU housing was not fulfilling those promises.

Back in the spring, ASU sent students home for the remainder of the school year. However, some students remained on-campus during the summer semesters — whether out of housing necessity or in order to participate in summer athletics programs. Apparently, some students who moved out late left their dorm rooms in filthy condition. According to one student who moved into Mountaineer Hall over the weekend, when she arrived there was trash, including dirty masks and food crumbs, strewn on the floor, and the surfaces were dirty. The mess had presumably been left by the previous resident.

This is an unacceptable situation. For the university to direct students into dorm rooms that had recently been vacated, yet had not been sanitized makes a mockery of health and safety.

On Monday, Aug. 10, hundreds more students moved into their new dormitories. That day while driving through town around lunchtime, I witnessed many crowds of half a dozen or so people gathered in the parking lots of Cone, Cannon, and Summit halls, though only a few people were wearing masks. Many of the students and their parents or friends stood close to one another with no masks. Meanwhile, masked police officers and traffic attendants looked on, either oblivious to the breach in university mask policy that was happening just feet from them, or apathetic to this behavior.

That evening, students began sharing on social media reports of parties. One account reported that at least 30 students were seen at a party the previous Saturday; they weren’t wearing masks, nor were they social distancing. Meanwhile, other students begged for people to respect Gov. Cooper’s pandemic safety guidelines.

One student responded to these parties, stating, “It’s like speaking to a wall. These students don’t give a sh*t, really.” More students commented that they had already seen several fraternity parties, and I myself had seen several of these gatherings while I drove down Oak Street, just a stone’s toss away from ASU’s campus. And a delivery driver stated that on several occasions they had brought food to multiple parties hosted by ASU students over the weekend.

By bringing students back to campus, the ASU administration not only has failed to protect the safety of all of those living in Boone, but also has failed in nearly every way in its response to the COVID-19 crisis. Some observers have defended Chancellor Sheri Everts by noting that she is merely following the lead of other universities in the UNC System and its leadership. But how can, “following orders,” be a valid excuse when such action (or inaction) could well lead to illness and even death in the ASU community?

The university, and frankly the UNC system as a whole, have largely ignored the scientific community and the advice of public health experts on the spread of COVID-19. Administrators have refused to mandate COVID-19 tests for the tens of thousands of outside residents coming to the university. They have failed to provide sanitary conditions for incoming students. And they have refused to acknowledge their failure at containing the virus.

What’s more, while almost every member of the faculty and staff at the university with whom I’ve spoken has stated they would teach fully online if possible, the administration has forced large numbers of professors and other instructors to do so in-person. If the university fails to provide sanitary conditions in their very own housing units, how can anyone feel confident or safe in attending classes in person?

I fear that it will only be a week or two before students are sent home from their dorms, and classes are shifted to online instruction. At the time of writing, there are nine active cases of COVID-19 among university employees and 13 among students — numbers that will likely spike in the coming days and weeks.

And when that happens, it will be  obvious that the the university’s reopening decisions have not been motivated by science or the public health needs of the university or the town of Boone. Instead, it will be clear that administrators’ apathetic and shortsighted decisions will have jeopardized thousands of people and, quite possibly caused significant serious illness and even death. If that occurs, the administration and Chancellor Everts should be held directly responsible for their failure to enact proper policies in response to this crisis.

[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to remove an inaccurate comparison between the number of COVID-19 cases at ASU and other UNC campuses.] 

Thomas McLamb is a graduate student at Appalachian State. ASU Prof. Jeffrey Bortz contributed to this article.