While the largest schools within the UNC System have moved to online learning after widespread COVID-19 outbreaks, at smaller institutions, disagreements over reopening plans are fraying relations to the breaking point. Students, faculty and administrators are debating whether to go online now — and avoid the same fate as their larger counterparts — or try to make it through the semester unless the number of infections makes it impossible.
UNC-Charlotte is still betting on-campus instruction can work, albeit later in the semester. This week the school, which was to begin in-person classes Sept. 7, announced it would instead move all undergraduate classes online until Oct. 1. Students will be allowed to move into its residence halls the last week of September.
“In recent weeks, Mecklenburg County has seen COVID-19-positive cases start to decline and public health officials are encouraged by these trends,” said UNC-Charlotte Chancellor Sharon Gaber in a message to the community. ”However, the county continues to have the highest number of outbreaks and clusters in the state. While the community is making considerable progress to slow the rate of transmission, we do not want to lose this momentum.”
Students, staff and faculty are skeptical the delayed in-person opening will work out, particularly with cold and flu season approaching, during which experts expect spikes in COVID-19 infections.
In a letter to the chancellor, the school’s Public Health Sciences faculty publicly called for the school to learn from the mistakes of UNC-Chapel Hill, ECU and NC State and move online for the rest of the semester. “We acknowledge that these decisions are not easy,” the faculty wrote in its letter. “However, the recent outbreak of cases at multiple universities can provide evidence for the epidemiological arguments against returning to any face-to-face instruction. As such, we focus our attention on the community’s health. It is our shared belief that reopening campus will result in avoidable illness to our campus and surrounding community.”
The numbers at large schools are grim. At NC State University, the system’s largest school, 46% of all students tested last week were positive. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship university, it was 32% of those tested. At East Carolina University, where police reported breaking up 20 parties the weekend before classes began, the positive rate was 26%. Each of the schools reported multiple clusters in on-campus dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses and apartment buildings surrounding the campus.
An increasing number of medical experts from across the system are publicly opposing the in-person, on-campus model pushed by the UNC System office and defended by many of the system’s chancellors.
Dr. Kurt Ribisl, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Health Behavior, was one of the prominent voices calling for that school to make the move online before mounting infections finally made it unavoidable. “Universities can reduce the risk of transmission in classrooms and controlled settings fairly easily,” Ribisl said. “Because they’d be using some of the same approaches used in health care settings. Most classes on UNC campus were virtual. For the few that were in-person there was very high compliance [with mask wearing, distancing and other health mandates]. So we really had that down. It’s the off-campus activity that is much harder to control.”
“Universities are going to have to work really hard to prevent off campus parties and events with fraternities and sororities from becoming the Achilles’ Heel that undermines their efforts to reduce COVID on college campuses,” Ribisl said.
Fraternity and sorority houses at UNC-Chapel Hill, ECU and NC State have been major centers of infection clusters. Contact tracing has led to the schools uncovering parties held in those locations against school and Greek system regulations and “dirty rush” activity in which Greek organizations held unofficial, in-person recruitment. But it isn’t just students participating in risky behavior that are getting sick. With students sharing dorm rooms, suites, apartments and common areas in student housing, the virus spread quickly even among students who say they only went to class and then returned to their residence halls.
Cesar Lopez, an doctoral candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, has done work on the Zika virus and COVID-19. As a virologist, he said he’s been disappointed with the way UNC System schools have ignored what scientists already know about the current pandemic. “This is the second pandemic I’ve worked on, so I’m no stranger to looking at this stuff,” Lopez said. “Bringing students back to congregate living, where you have students living together like this — we’ve seen that doesn’t work in nursing homes, it doesn’t work in prisons. You just can’t control transmission all that well in that kind of environment, unfortunately.”
“It’s heartbreaking, honestly,” Lopez said. “Because we know better.”
Lopez is one of many scientists who have called for a broader test, trace and isolate plan for students, staff and faculty returning to campuses. Instead, UNC System schools decided not to mandate testing for those returning to campus. Instead, the schools addressed those students who were symptomatic and seeking a test.
“Now we’re actually just kind of chasing the virus instead of keeping up with it or getting ahead of it,” Lopez said. “There are resource and equipment limitations and I understand that, but we’ve seen a concerted effort at some other institutions to do this. I think if we’re going to bring students back to campus, it’s something we’re going to have to do.”
UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis is advocating universal testing for students — a position also taken by White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Deborah Birx in a private call with state and local leaders last week.
“Each university not only has to do entrance testing,” Birx said in the call, a recording of which was obtained and reported by the Center for Public Integrity last Wednesday. “What we talked to every university about is being able to do surge testing. How are you going to do 5,000 samples in one day or 10,000 samples in one day?”
Experts with UNC Health advised against this earlier this summer in the face of similar calls from student and faculty, arguing that a negative test only represents negative status on the day it was taken. That could lead to a false sense of security, they said, and could also mean nothing if the person tested is infected the next day.
But universal testing could help schools quarantine those already infected and prevent their being introduced to residence halls and social situation on campus, Kotis said in an interview with Policy Watch. “We have no idea how many of these students are positive when they come to campus, so we have no idea how many of them are encountering it in dorms or at parties or anywhere else,” Kotis said.
Two other members of UNC Board of Governors told Policy Watch they would be for universal testing this week, though they asked not to be identified out of concern of getting ahead of policy set by the board or UNC System President Peter Hans.
The UNC System and campus-level administration reaction to mounting infections has incensed many faculty members and led to sharp criticism from some in faculty governance. “The week before the semester began at #UNC, the positive rate was just under 3%,” UNC-Chapel Hill Law professor and Faculty Executive Committee member Eric Muller wrote on Twitter this week. “The first week of the semester, it jumped to over 13%. The second week, it jumped to over 30%. OVER THIRTY PERCENT. There are people responsible for this. And it’s not the students.”
At Appalachian State University, faculty have for months been pressing for the school to go online and avoid the sort of mass infections now being seen at other schools in the system. Getting nowhere with those pleas, the school’s Faculty Senate last week passed a resolution expressing “no confidence” in the leadership of Chancellor Sheri Everts.
After the vote, Everts sent an email saying no senior level university administrators attended the meeting because members of the Faculty Senate are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the UNC System over what they say are unsafe working conditions in the pandemic.
Since then, App State Provost Heather Norris has cited the lawsuit in her refusal to meet with the Faculty Senate or its committees. The lawsuit cited has plaintiffs from a number of UNC System schools. At none of the other schools have administrators been advised not to meet with faculty leaders while the suit is ongoing.
Many faculty members are also pressing for more transparency in how the UNC System is making decisions on which schools will close and which will remain open. Those decisions will not be made at the local level, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey told chancellors last month, but will instead come from his board and from Hans.
Initially, UNC-Chapel Hill and then NC State and ECU moved their undergraduate courses online, it has been unclear on what criteria those decisions have been made and who made the final decision.
Calls and emails for requests for interviews with Hans and Ramsey were not returned this week or last week. Similarly, requests for public documents related to the closures have not yet been acknowledged by the UNC System office.