On Monday, August 10, UNC-Chapel Hill will reopen its campus for the 2020-21 academic year. Despite widespread criticism from students, staff, and faculty, the UNC Board of Governors has reaffirmed its commitment to a plan based mostly on in-person instruction. They have claimed there are no other options. Here are six myths about the university’s reopening:
“Reopening UNC will be safe because everyone will abide by the Carolina Together community standards.”
According to a survey conducted by the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, only 52 percent of undergraduate students at UNC said that “they were extremely likely to adhere to physical distancing requirements on campus.” An additional 28 percent responded that “they are extremely or somewhat likely to go to parties or other large campus gatherings.” While training over the summer, dozens of student athletes, coaches, and staff in the athletic department tested positive in a “cluster” of COVID-19. Such outbreaks of the coronavirus among UNC undergraduate students and campus staff are likely to continue occurring once UNC’s campus reopens and students return to residential halls.
“UNC does not have the financial capacity to go all-online.”
In the past two decades, UNC System universities have undergone a process of corporatization by extending their sources of revenue through different investments. Most have endowment funds consisting of a diversified set of assets. According to the 2019 Annual Report of the UNC Investment Fund, cited in a petition drafted by graduate workers, UNC has a total of $433.9 million in cash and cash equivalents and more than $6 million in assets undesignated and without donor restriction. This is more than three times the amount raised in tuition and fees in 2019 ($145.7 million according to the same report). The point of having such a substantial amount of liquid resources must be, at least in part, to deal with unforeseen emergencies. If protecting students and workers from a deadly pandemic is not a worthy enough reason to draw on these, we wonder what these resources are for.
“Campus workers want UNC to reopen because they will be able to keep their jobs.”
An all-online fall semester at UNC would not necessitate the termination of all campus employees. In the event of a severe outbreak, an indefinite shutdown of the university system after beginning in-person operations may actually endanger more jobs than the alternative. Many campus workers at UNC-CH have been actively involved in the Safe Jobs Save Lives campaign begun by members of the UE 150. These essential frontline workers have made unanswered demands for protections such as increased availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay, and expanded sick leave. At a town hall meeting about COVID-19 held by the Workers of the UNC System on August 16, UE 150 Vice President Sekia Royall reminded listeners that the unjust treatment of campus workers is a form of institutional racism. Royall stated that “campus workers are disproportionately Black and Latinx. The deaths due to COVID-19 have been disproportionately Black and Latinx workers, mostly due to the exposure we get at work or traveling to work.”
“Reopening UNC will save local communities from an economic disaster.”
A potential decrease in the level of economic activity generated by students and university staff in the surrounding community has been a major argument in favor of in-person campus operations. The effects of such losses do not compare to the widespread impacts of an outbreak and its ramifications. The influx of students and personnel into the local community creates a higher risk for a severe COVID-19 outbreak, which could necessitate another round of business closures and increased unemployment. The impacts of this scenario would be felt most intensely by households with limited or no access to health care, who are already disproportionately affected by the pandemic. While economic distress is inevitable, the university system has the potential to mitigate these effects by protecting students, staff, and the surrounding community.
“UNC is choosing in-person instruction because not everyone in the state has access to high-speed internet.”
While access to high-speed internet is indeed a major obstacle for remote learning, universities in the UNC system have the ability to allocate a portion of their resources to the improvement of internet infrastructure in underserved areas of North Carolina. They also have the capacity to directly provide the necessary technology to students in need. The high fees charged by UNC to run campus facilities that will not operate during the emergency could be allocated to such endeavors. Given the urgency of this situation and the benefits of such services for students, building a better remote-learning infrastructure could become a concerted focus of donor contributions.
“Holding classes in person will provide students with the ‘college experience.’”
There is no viable option where students get a normal educational or social experience under the conditions of an ongoing global pandemic. Socially distanced mask-to-mask instruction is a poor imitation of a typical classroom setting. Masks present a practical barrier to communication by muffling instructors’ and students’ voices. For hearing impaired students, face coverings pose an additional hurdle to interpreting speech. Small-group discussions of class material and hands-on activities will be made difficult by social distancing requirements. The mode of instruction for classes will be impacted by individual cases of COVID-19. The hybridization of in-person classes will become increasingly necessary as more students are infected with or exposed to COVID-19 and subsequently required to attend classes virtually. If North Carolina continues on its current trajectory, rising cases of COVID-19 will almost certainly necessitate that the UNC system go all-online during the fall semester.
According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 1,167 people were hospitalized and 2,050 had died in North Carolina due to COVID-19 as of August 5, 2020. The lives of UNC students, instructors, and campus workers will be at an increased risk due to on-campus operations when compared to an all-online scenario. We must combat these pervasive myths about the safety and necessity of reopening UNC’s campus and work to protect the lives of Orange County residents and all those in the UNC community.
Cayla Colclasure is an archaeologist and PhD student in anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Julio Gutierrez is a graduate student worker and PhD candidate in anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill.
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