In June, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz walked through Polk Place with a Carolina blue mask on his mouth and a CBS cameraman in front of him. 60 Minutes journalist John Dickerson outlined the school’s preparations for in-person classes: starting the fall semester early, downsizing lecture hall classes, and disinfecting athletic centers.
The Chancellor said that students were excited about returning, even though “it’s not going to be the same Carolina.”
“Is it worth the risk, then, to bring everybody back, if it’s not going to be the same Carolina?” Dickerson asked.
“We’re not going to bring students, faculty, staff back onto a campus where we don’t believe it’s a safe environment,” Guskiewicz replied.
Now it’s July, and COVID-19 has yet to soften its grip on North Carolina. The single-day case count peaked on July 18, bringing the total to around 100,000 and rising. More than 1,100 people are hospitalized throughout the state.
Despite the concerns of students, staff, faculty, and community members, on-campus residents are still expected to return as early as August 3. Off-campus residents, including graduate students, are already trickling back into town. Some students say that they have continuously voiced their concerns about coming back and who it will hit hardest—students of color and staff. While the administration says it’s making sure students’ voices are heard, the students don’t feel heard.
“It’s the students that are continuing to lead, even though we continually get shut out of the conversations when it’s time to make a decision,” says Greear Webb, a sophomore. “And now we’re talking about life and death, and we can no longer afford for that to be the case, which is why we’re putting such pressure on the administration.”
On July 14, Webb and 16 other students met with administrators in a closed meeting to discuss their concerns about plans for the fall semester and how they account for racial equity. The meeting occurred only after a week of requests from the students.
Lamar Richards, the chair of the Undergraduate Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity, is crafting questions with the commission to gauge students’ opinions on campus reopening. In the meeting, he told the chancellor he was worried that the questions the university sent out in its campus climate survey were creating biased answers—such as asking students if they were returning to school instead of asking why. The chancellor said he didn’t see how they could be worded differently.
Faculty Executive Committee Chair Mimi Chapman told the committee that 89 percent of incoming students prefer a face-to-face or hybrid model, as do almost 78 percent of returning students. But as the school draws near, minority students are worried about equity.
“It’s very important that we look at how many students want to come back because their families sit in a place of privilege—‘Hey, we send you off to college and you get COVID, we got money to cover your expenses,’” Richards says. “Versus our minority and Black and Brown families, our first-generation families, saying, ‘Oh, shoot, I’m really worried because we’re already on loans trying to get you through college.’”
On July 16, Guskiewicz told the UNC Board of Trustees that 57 percent of classes will have an in-class component. Every class will have a virtual component, but many will require class attendance at least once a week, and not every class is available online. For upperclassmen deeper into their major, some classes they need are available only with an in-person component.
The school created a “Roadmap” website to navigate the school year, including “off-ramps” for getting students out of Chapel Hill if cases spike, though how many cases it would take is unspecified. While the idea of off-ramps has been mentioned in open meetings with faculty, the Board of Trustees, and the Carrboro Town Council, they are not clearly outlined on the website.
The roadmap relies on students following a set of community standards including mask requirements, social distancing, and cleanliness. If they don’t, they could face “administrative action.” Beyond campus, Orange County has a mask ordinance and prevents businesses from being open past 10:00 p.m. But these standards did not protect 37 student athletes, coaches, and staff from testing positive weeks ago.
Fraternities have also not received clear instructions on what they aren’t allowed to do. In an interview with NC Policy Watch, the former house mother for Delta Kappa Epsilon said the brothers told her that they would not wear masks or stop partying. Almost thirty percent of UNC students say they will continue going to gatherings.
There is no public plan for how to alert students of clusters or outbreaks. Students, staff, and faculty say they first heard about the athletic department clusters from news outlets instead of the university, which is attempting to get around the need for constant campus-wide alerts with contact tracing. But this is effective only if there is a rapid testing process.
Students aren’t the only ones concerned about the safety of their peers. According to a survey from the UNC Faculty Executive Committee, more than 40 percent of faculty believe that the university guidelines weren’t enough, and the staff seems to have been left out of the conversation.
UNC adds 43,000 people to Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s population. While a UNC Hospitals representative says they “remain confident in our ability to care for all COVID and non-COVID patients,” there are valid concerns about having a reliable place to get supplies as the national totals continue to climb.
Vice-Chancellor Bob Blouin says that the school has set aside about 164 beds in two dorms for students that have tested positive, as well as students that are quarantining.
When it comes to in-person versus virtual learning, UNC is subject to the Board of Governors. And since the university system budget could be cut by up to 50 percent if campuses have to close mid-semester, all 17 UNC schools are at risk of furloughing or eliminating entire programs. The board is preparing for mid-semester closures.
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