This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

Two weeks into in-person instruction at UNC System campuses, faculty members at universities small and large are pushing for more flexibility to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including, in some cases, a temporary shift back to online classes.

UNC System President Peter Hans

On Tuesday, Duke University announced new protocols as its campus deals with a spike in infections, largely among vaccinated students. These include giving professors the ability to shift to online-only classes for the next two weeks.

So far, most faculty members at UNC System schools remain frustrated by the refusal of administrators and system leaders to grant them the same flexibility. They cite decisions that allow on-campus living and instruction — even as many communities across North Carolina see rising infection numbers, overwhelmed hospital systems and lagging vaccination rates.

Many professors report classes they are holding in person have become de facto hybrid classes, as they try to accommodate a rising number of students who test positive and must isolate or are close-contacts of those who have tested positive.

Last week at Appalachian State University, faculty members published an open letter to administrators asking to move to online teaching until vaccination rates are higher and infection rates fall. As of Wednesday, more than 200 faculty members had signed on.

Just 50 percent of the residents of Watauga County, home to Appalachian State’s campus, are vaccinated. Though no UNC schools are yet mandating vaccination, all of them are asking faculty, staff and students to attest to their vaccination status and tracking those numbers.

Though 88 percent of App State faculty and staff have attested to being vaccinated, just 51 percent of students have done so. That’s well short of the school’s stated goal of 70 percent.

“I went back into a classroom feeling pretty good,” said Emily Dakin, a professor in the Department of Social Work at App State who helped put together the faculty’s open letter. “I was thinking like this Delta thing is happening, but everyone’s gonna be vaccinated, or at least, you know, most people. And I think part of my thinking about that was probably a bias based on [the fact that] the people I interact with are getting vaccinated. Now that we see the actual numbers, that confidence is gone and we have to figure out how safe we feel doing this the way we’re doing it.”

The open letter has received no response from the school’s administration, Dakin said. That hasn’t surprised much of the faculty there, which has had a strained relationship with Chancellor Sheri Everts for some time. Last year, the school’s Faculty Senate took the rare step of passing a resolution of “no confidence” in Everts’s leadership, based largely on her handling of the school’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dakin said Everts, like most campus leaders across the UNC System, is limited by what the UNC Board of Governors will allow individual campuses to do. The system’s governing board, chosen by the Republican majority in the North Carolina legislature, has found itself at odds with campus-level faculty and student groups throughout the pandemic. Its insistence on moving forward with in-person classes and on-campus living last fall led to some of the state’s largest schools—including UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and East Carolina University—being overwhelmed with clusters of infections that sent all students home within a week.

“I think the faculty is kind of enraged,” said Michael Behrent, a history professor at App State and former chair of the school’s Faculty Senate. “I think people are pissed and upset and just feel that they have sort of no conduit to the administration to express their concerns and are just convinced that the administration is ignoring them.”

“The administration’s goal is clearly to, you know, to declare that everything’s going well,” Behrent said. “The hope is that even if lots of people do get sick, that no one gets really sick or dies, and that they can just kind of, you know, run through this kind of chaos and sort of come out okay.”

None of the UNC campuses have yet seen infections on a level that have overwhelmed their isolation spaces, a key factor in last year’s shift to online instruction. But Behrent and other professors say low vaccination rates and the number of students and professors who are testing positive should lead to greater flexibility that could prevent infection and further community spread.

“Instead, what we have is this sort of official policy of hypocrisy,” Behrent said. “We’re being told in terms of accommodations that we should be going about this in a ‘pre-COVID’ manner. But that doesn’t reflect reality. So we’re all innovating on the ground and finding work-arounds and doing what we need to do, whatever the policy is.”

Policy and politics

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the vaccination numbers are much better. Eighty-nine percent of students and 82 percent of faculty and staff have attested to being vaccinated.

That’s significantly higher than even other large Triangle area universities like N.C. State, where as of this week, 65 percent of students, 79 percent of faculty and 61 percent of staff attested to being vaccinated.

But on Tuesday, UNC-Chapel Hill announced three new clusters of infections, defined as five or more linked infections in the same place, in residence halls. Those tests are from last week but weren’t reported until this week, leading students and faculty to further question how transparent the school is being about its numbers.

There are also questions about how reliable the attestation numbers are. Students must answer the vaccination question by saying they have been vaccinated, they have not, or they would rather not answer the question. But according to the university, the uploading of documentation of vaccination is optional. The university is conducting random audits of those who have chosen to upload such documentation to be sure it is genuine, but no one is required to provide documentation.

In a Monday Faculty Executive Committee Meeting, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz reiterated that he would like to see a vaccine mandate for students, faculty and staff. But the decision isn’t up to him.

UNC System President Peter Hans has consistently said that only the North Carolina Commission for Public Health can mandate vaccines at the university level, and the UNC System office and chancellors at individual schools have for months been citing that rule as an impediment to a vaccine mandate. Hans’s legal analysis, however, has been questioned by some, who cite among other things, the fact that UNC schools required a measles booster during a 1989 outbreak of that disease.

“Right now, we do not have the ability to authorize or to mandate the vaccine,” Guskiewicz said Monday. “We have had these conversations at the system level, healthy conversations around it. We’ve been told to be prepared that should there be a mandate that would come down from the Commission on Public Health, which could make that mandate at some point, we are prepared for that.”

The Commission for Public Health is a 13-member body. Under state law, four members are elected by the North Carolina Medical Society and nine are appointed by the governor. In the highly politicized environment around vaccine and masking mandates, however, the commission has not yet taken any public action on a mandate and is not scheduled to meet again until October 15.

The other potential impediment to a mandate was the lack of full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for a vaccine. That changed earlier this month, when the FDA gave full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

With infection numbers climbing on campus, UNC-Chapel Hill faculty also petitioned for a move to online classes earlier this month.

The university has responded to that call by saying instructors can seek a formal accommodation through the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office. That process, however, can take weeks and it is not clearly understood what would qualify during a global pandemic as conditions that would lead to approval.

“It’s about the safety of our communities”

Dwayne Dixon, a teaching assistant professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department, recently made the unilateral decision to take his classes online. He’s now teaching three courses: a 120-person lecture course, a 60-person class, and a smaller one with just over 30 people.

Like many faculty members, Dixon has an unvaccinated child, in his case, a 7-year-old daughter. Concern for her, coupled with the number of students who can’t attend class because they are sick or are a close contact of someone who is, led him to conclude that going online was the safest option until the surging Delta variant numbers decrease.

“I made the decision for my child, for my large extended family, for my own health and for my students’ health,” Dixon said. “They are all crowded together in these classrooms, and don’t know that they can trust the next students sitting next to them hasn’t been at an off campus party drinking with other people who are infected, and can now be contributing to community transmission.”

Dixon said he always intended for the arrangement to be temporary, but complaints led to meetings with his chair and the dean of the college. They didn’t explicitly say he must return to full-time, in-person instruction or be fired, he said. Rather, they provided “cryptic” advice that he needed to find a way to do something short of bringing the courses entirely online.

Media relations officials at UNC-Chapel Hill said they don’t have a number for how many faculty members are now trying to change their mode of instruction.

“That data is not tracked in a centralized way because decisions are often made at the department or school level,” the media relations office told Policy Watch this week.

At this week’s Faculty Executive Committee meeting, UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin said the school is trying to be as accommodating as possible while keeping as many courses in-person as possible.

“No one is expected to come to work sick,” Blouin said. “We are asking everyone, whether it’s flu season or now that we’re dealing with COVID, we are not asking anyone to come to work sick whether you’re a faculty member, staff member or a student.

“And we hope that our faculty will be equally understanding and respectful of students who are reporting to them that they are sick, that they have a fever or that they need to stay in place, and that we will all do our very best to accommodate anyone who has any symptoms whatsoever, whether they are COVID-related symptoms or other medical circumstances that require a faculty member to stay home.”

But that’s not enough, Dixon said. Faculty members shouldn’t have to wait until they are sick to take the steps they need to stay healthy. Nor, he said, should they have to go through weeks of approvals to make decisions about their safety and that of their families and students during a surge of infections.

“We talk about the safety of our communities,” Dixon said. “That has to mean protecting our physical well-being now. Because if I’m sick, I can’t teach. If I’m stressed about trying to protect the health of my kid, I’m not doing the best work I can do. And I agree that the best work I can do is in person, so help me figure out a way to get there by giving us this time and this flexibility when there’s a surge like this. And that’s where the university is not, or the Board of Governors, is not helping us get there.”

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