The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

'Half-step behind': How UNC is distributing community protective equipment

The Carolina Together Care Kit was provided to students on UNC's campus, containing two masks, a thermometer, hand sanitizer, and a no-contact key for doors and other surfaces.

The University is providing students and employees with community protective equipment, but graduate workers, faculty and staff say UNC’s messaging and distribution process is unclear and disorganized.

“Even the very smallest issue on PPE (personal protective equipment) just shows that it's confusing, it's rushed, it's not thought out and it's not really about the safety and health of the people on the ground on campus,” said Joseph Richards, a graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication who is teaching a course remotely.

While undergraduate courses will be delivered remotely starting Wednesday, graduate, professional and health affairs schools will continue to teach courses as they are or as directed by individual schools. 

UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that students can access CPE (community protective equipment) at any time at several mask distribution locations across campus, while employees working on campus are proactively provided with necessary CPE through their CPE coordinator. 

Employees and students will receive as much CPE as they need, UNC Media Relations said in the email.

CPE coordinators — an additional role arising from the pandemic — are able to order masks, disinfectant wipes, disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer and gloves, the Department of Classics’ CPE coordinator Cinnamon Weaver said. 

Tracey Cave, a CPE coordinator responsible for ordering supplies for three departments, said she must place orders for a two-week period and then distribute the items once received on the department’s set CPE delivery date.

Cave said most items have been available — but it depends on the week.

Both Cave and Weaver said they have already experienced CPE shortages. Cave said when she has gone to order CPE items through the University ordering system, some items have been out of stock. In various weeks, there has been no disinfectant, individual hand sanitizer and gloves available, she said. Cave and Weaver said they both have disposable masks supplied by the University, available for anyone needing one in their department.

Weaver said she and other CPE coordinators have had some supplies not arrive when ordered. 

“I’m taking it day by day and order by order and trying to keep things moving and stocked as best I can,” Weaver said.

Cave said if the department underestimated the number of supplies needed or if some item was out of stock, she would not be able to get it until the next delivery date. She said there has not been much instruction from the University about what to do when shortages occur. But her first step would likely be to contact other departments and see if they have an excess that could be shared.

While shortages are concerning, Weaver said it’s not surprising that UNC has had problems supplying the demand for certain CPE items because the entire country has faced this issue.

Carolina Together Care Kits distribution

UNC Media Relations said that the Carolina Together Care Kits, an initial supply of protective health equipment for individuals on campus, are intended to supplement readily-available CPE on campus.

“The Care Kits are not the University’s primary CPE supply for the University community,” UNC Media Relations said.  

Cave and Weaver said they did not originally understand the care kits to be supplemental.

“They're now trying to downplay the care kits as just a little extra perk for coming back — a welcome kit,” Cave said.

The University ordered one care kit for every undergraduate student, graduate and professional student and employee learning or working on campus, UNC Media Relations said.

Each student kit contains two cloth face masks, hand sanitizer, a thermometer, a no-contact key and a Community Standards information card. Employee kits are the same, except they do not contain the no-contact key.

Undergraduate students were able to pick up their Care Kits before the first day of class.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Graduate and professional students will receive their Care Kits through their academic program. UNC Media Relations said it was determined that this process would help the University achieve the highest rate of distribution to this population of students. The distribution process to academic programs began on Aug. 10 and will continue this upcoming week.

Employees working on campus began receiving their Care Kits on Aug. 10, through their department’s CPE coordinator.

Several graduate students said they expected the care kits to be available on the first day of class. Graduate students in the Department of Religious Studies said they were informed the evening before the first day of class by the department chair that their Care Kits would not be available until Aug. 20.

Timothy Smith, a doctoral candidate in religious studies who is completing a fellowship remotely this semester, said he was shocked by the announcement. 

Smith said he was already upset and concerned that his colleagues would not receive the kits in advance of the first day, but learning they would not be available until nearly two weeks into the semester raised serious concerns about the University’s attention to workers making the reopening possible.

A doctoral student in religious studies teaching recitations in person, who requested to remain anonymous due to employment concerns, said her understanding of the purpose of the care kits was to ensure workers were protected and felt safe in the classroom — so she said it does not make sense that they were not ready on the first day. 

The student said not having the kits available “eroded” her confidence in the University’s ability to live up to its commitments and casted doubt on whether she can trust what the University communicates about available resources and decision-making.

Some graduate students and faculty interpreted not having their care kits on the first day as a lack of preparedness. But this timeline was planned, UNC Media Relations said.  

UNC Media Relations said the distribution of the Care Kits to graduate and professional students, faculty and staff was not delayed and is following the University’s planned distribution schedule.

Eli LoCicero, a doctoral student in the economics department teaching a HyFlex course, said he purchased a pack of masks from UNC Student Stores prior to the first day, since the University’s preparation has seemed a “half-step behind” during the course of the reopening.

Cave said she has known for about two weeks that the care kits wouldn’t be available for the first day of class. However, some graduate students, faculty and staff said they still don’t know when their care kits will be available.

“There are a lot of moving parts and all the moving parts aren't necessarily communicating with each other as well as they could,” Cave said.

Prioritizing undergraduates

By not making the care kits available to all graduate and professional students, faculty and staff prior to the first day of class as was done for undergraduate students, employees said the University has “absolutely” prioritized undergraduate students.

“I would attribute this to disorganization and maybe a special concern right now about student perspective and students’ parents’ perspective,” said Al Duncan, a professor in the department of classics teaching in-person three times a week as of Monday morning. “I think it's not accidental that the students bring money to the University while faculty take money.”

Duncan said while faculty may be less of a focal point for the University, they still get more privilege and attention than many of the frontline workers on the University’s payroll.

Richards said CPE and care kit confusion confirmed their skepticism and concern for reopening campus during a pandemic. Richards said they view the Care Kits as the bare minimum to provide to workers, but thinks it does not address the unsafe reality of returning to campus.

“What would be even more helpful in that care kit is a living wage,” Richards said. “If they put the missing $11,000 to get me up to a living wage, that would be more helpful because a care kit also doesn't address what happens when people do get sick and get hospitalized.”

Duncan said a University response that is delayed and disorganized is understandable given the challenging situation. While Duncan said he has been impressed by some of the University’s efforts, like the outdoor seating added in Polk Place, he said there are other places the University has “let the ball drop.”

“The administration's being asked to do a lot but when it's clear that things are disorganized and the stakes are so high — we're talking about people's lives here,” Duncan said. “I think there needs to be more open and honest communication and a little less optimism and a little bit more realism.”