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'This is something that's killing people’: Instructors petition for fall teaching options

A family picnics on the lawn outside of South Building on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Updated July 23, 2020, 10p.m.: On July 20, the Office of the Chancellor informed students they will be required to sign a document, acknowledging they will abide by the University’s community standards, to take classes in the fall. “Carolina is a place where we care for one another,” the note said. “Although the risk of COVID-19 cannot be eliminated from campus, our collective commitment to consistently embracing and practicing these Community Standards and University Guidelines is how we can work together to help promote a safe and healthy campus for everyone,” Chancellor Guzkiewicz said.

In a June 16 Faculty Executive Committee meeting, Chapman said the survey found that 46 percent of respondents chose remote teaching as the preferred method of instruction.

In an emergency meeting earlier this summer, the Graduate and Professional Student Federation adopted resolutions calling on the University’s leadership to take actions in order to protect graduate and professional students, campus workers and international and undocumented students during the fall semester. 

The GPSF also formally endorsed a petition published in June by a group of graduate workers in the Anti-Racist Grad Worker Collective at UNC, which highlighted a series of safety concerns regarding the return to in-person instruction. The petition currently has more than 500 signatures. 

He said the Federation launched a survey for feedback from graduate and professional students about the roadmap for the fall semester and will be involved in a student-led webinar regarding reopening plans on June 11. GPSF President Ryan Collins previously told the DTH that responses to a survey conducted by the graduate student group in June showed that many graduate and professional students are opposed to a return to on-campus instruction because of the coronavirus. 

Over 650 faculty, fellows and teaching assistants are petitioning the UNC administration to ensure that no instructor will be required to teach in person during the fall 2020 semester due to COVID-19.

“It's not that we don't love teaching,” María DeGuzmán, professor of English and comparative literature and one of the writers of the petition, said. “We don't want to participate in any kind of disregard for human life.”

The petition, which collected signatures through June 8, also calls for the following:

  • the guarantee that no instructor be required to disclose personal health concerns
  • that all members of the campus community be required to wear masks and practice social distancing in classrooms and public settings
  • that all staff, students and faculty be tested for COVID-19 during the first weeks of classes, and 
  • a plan for regular and ongoing coronavirus testing be put in place. 

Michael Palm, associate professor in the department of communication and president of the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, helped write the petition. 

Palm said his colleagues do not “feel even remotely included” in the process to determine how instruction will be delivered in the fall. This puts a lot of pressure on department leaders, he said.

“They're putting a lot of responsibility on chairs and directors and middle managers without giving them any guidance in terms of how to go about making this decision,” Palm said.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a June 8 email statement to The Daily Tar Heel that many constituencies have been included in decision-making processes. 

"Our planning has involved Carolina’s world-class infectious disease and public health faculty experts, state and local officials, campus leadership and groups of faculty, staff and students," Guskiewicz said. 

According to the Carolina Together website, there will be both on-campus and remote instruction during the upcoming semester.

“Decisions about which methods will be used for specific classes will be made locally by deans and department chairs, with input from the respective faculty members regarding how to create the right balance of course offerings using these different instructional delivery models,” the website states. 

Guskiewicz said faculty will have flexibility, but did not provide specifics. 

"We will provide flexibility to faculty, staff and students for remote learning and teleworking so that we can safely and effectively deliver quality instruction, and carry out our impactful research and service this fall," he said.

Palm said the petition’s language was largely based on a letter that Duke University’s administration sent to their faculty. 

The May 29 letter states that Duke will be testing all students living on campus for COVID-19 before they are allowed to start classes, requiring masks and physical distancing in classrooms and public settings and monitoring the health of faculty, students and staff through daily health checks. 

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Additionally, no Duke faculty will be required to teach on campus, nor will they have to disclose any personal health concerns.

UNC faculty called attention to the University's expected financial losses from the pandemic and how this may play a role in the decisions regarding the reopening of campus.

“We know that universities don't want to touch their endowments, but we also know that UNC does have a pretty large endowment,” DeGuzmán said. “Maybe we should be a little more creative with alternatives.”

The Faculty Executive Committee sent a survey June 3 to voting faculty to gather views and concerns about the return to on-campus teaching.

Mimi Chapman, incoming chairperson of the faculty and associate dean for doctoral education in the UNC School of Social Work, said the voting faculty includes almost 4,000 people. 

‘A power imbalance’

Benjamin Fortun, a history graduate student and teaching assistant, said his family has been heavily affected by COVID-19. Both of Fortun’s parents, who live in Los Angeles, contracted the virus.

Fortun's mother has a lingering cough. His father was put on a ventilator in an intensive care unit and lost his ability to walk.

“My dad came close to death. And he can't walk anymore and he has to relearn how to do that,” Fortun said. “I want everyone to know that this is very real. This is something that's killing people.”

He said while he wants to be teaching, no one should risk contracting the virus to be on campus in the fall.

“I don't think students should be in dorms, I don't think grad students should have to be forced to teach in classrooms, I don't think that janitors and food servers on campus should have to come in and do a job that will put their lives very much at risk,” Fortun said. 

Associate professor of history Erik Gellman said in accordance with guidelines, he will be recording online lectures for one of his fall classes, but his graduate teaching assistants will have to do recitations in person. 

“There's a power imbalance there,” Gellman said. “I'm sending my grad students into recitations every week, and they're putting themselves at risk when I'm not assuming the same risks myself.”

‘Calling on a particular kind of citizenship’

Signers of the petition questioned how best practices like mask-wearing and social distancing will be enforced.

Gellman said many spaces on campus are crowded to begin with. 

“I don't know how UNC is going to be able to ensure social distancing in its classrooms,” he said.

Sue Estroff, professor of social medicine, acknowledged the fall semester will be unlike any other.

“This is calling on a particular kind of citizenship, that we haven't been called on for in a while,” she said. 

The University is confident in its ability to provide a safe environment for students and faculty, Guskiewicz said. 

"We know that students thrive in our on-campus environment, and we believe we can provide that environment safely," Guskiewicz said. "To accomplish this, everyone will be expected to adhere to our community standards, which will include wearing a mask, physical distancing and more."

Estroff said she would like to see “dignity, respect and choice” for students, faculty and staff maximized, and along with Gellman, expressed particular concern for staff who work on campus in other capacities. 

“They're doing a lot to talk about what we're going to do and flexibility for us,” Gellman said. “But contingent workers, staff, people who are working at the dining hall, graduate students — those are the people who have the most precarious existence.”

Chad Lloyd, secretary of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, said in a June 5 email the GPSF could not yet provide a statement regarding the University’s plans for the fall semester.

He said the Federation launched a survey for feedback from graduate and professional students about the roadmap for the fall semester and will be involved in a student-led webinar regarding reopening plans on June 11.

Guskiewicz said he believes the community will rise to the issues that COVID-19 presents. 

"This is an opportunity for this generation to create a new standard for community care. I think they are more than capable of meeting that challenge," Guskiewicz said. 

DeGuzmán said the instructor petition will be presented to University administration after all signatures have been collected.

“We're all invested in making sure that public education survives. And we're going to have more pandemics,” DeGuzmán said. “We need to learn how to do this well.”