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'A very unusual time': Board of Governors discussed system response to COVID-19

Bill Roper

UNC-System Interim President Bill Roper introduces UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and discusses their mission for UNC's future direction at the Carolina Inn on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. 

The UNC System Board of Governors discussed the response of system schools to COVID-19, from hospital testing to postponing commencement, in a special session conference call Friday. 

"I sure am convinced it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” interim UNC System President Bill Roper said. “I have been impressed with all of our work taking place at our 17 institutions in the face of trying circumstances.”

Roper introduced David Weber, who serves as the associate chief medical officer for UNC Health Care, to give an update on coronavirus in North Carolina. Weber said UNC Health Care currently has the ability to conduct 120 tests per day for the virus and aims to expand this to 300 tests a day, despite some supply shortage.

“So far across the state, certain things are in short supply, but I’ve not heard they are critical — meaning we have to stop testing or can’t take care of patients safely.”

Weber said the 11 hospitals of UNC Health Care are making tests for COVID-19 more available.

“We have set up, across our 11-hospital system, respiratory diagnostics centers where individuals can be tested and UNC Hospitals is processing those samples across the system,” Weber said. “And it covers many areas in North Carolina.”

The BOG discussed how long universities and their hospitality sector, particularly dining halls, would remain closed.

“I think really our best measure right now is social distancing, meaning six feet away from most people to prevent transmission,” Weber said. “I think this will peak in a 4 to 6 month period so we need to continue that for another 4 to 6 weeks. So, we are talking about 8 to 20 weeks before we can go back to opening restaurants and hotels and sports venues.”

This projection has caused the UNC System to postpone or cancel events, including spring commencement.

Roper spoke about the system-wide transition from in-person instruction to alternative course delivery.

“I’m proud to share that 95 percent of UNC System classes are online ready,” Roper said. “We have done this over the last two weeks, which is amazing.”

W. Marty Kotis, III, vice chairperson for the Committee on Public Affairs, raised concerns about the current format of online classes should schools have to continue the system into the fall semester.

“I don’t think the short-term Zoom fix we have is going to be competitive when we are looking at a very competitive environment in the summer and fall for online education,” Kotis said.

The possibility of a refund policy for the estimated 80,000 on-campus residents within the UNC System was also brought up during the meeting.

“We should be able to begin to answer those questions next week,” Roper said. “We don’t have an answer today, other than it’s understandable that people want to get refunded.”

Budget priorities were also shifted during the meeting as a result of coronavirus’ impact on the UNC System. Temple Sloan, chairperson of the Committee on Budget and Finance, motioned to table all of the committee’s items from its meeting on Thursday, March 19.

Sloan said the Committee on Budget and Finance would reconvene within the next two weeks to put together a coronavirus relief package and review the online learning package.

Similarly, a motion was passed for the UNC System Office to prepare a new budget and documents to address the COVID-19.

“We’re in a very unusual time but I would go out of my way to say how pleased I am with the collaborative team work that is underway across the UNC System,” Roper said.

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