CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the title of a plaintiff mentioned in the story. The article has been updated to reflect the change in title attribution. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article referenced a letter written by Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman and linked to a report from NC Policy Watch. This report published the letter in its entirety which included private information. The Daily Tar Heel has removed references to the letter in this report.
In a July 29 letter released to the public Wednesday, the Orange County Health Department recommended to UNC officials that the University restrict on-campus housing to at-risk students and implement online-only instruction for the first five weeks of the semester.
These recommendations stemmed from increasing case counts of COVID-19 in Orange County as well as emails to OCHD from UNC faculty, staff, students and community members who fear the return of students to campus.
In the letter, Orange County Health Department Director Quintana Stewart said the department recommends students with no equitable educational resources and those with “true housing needs” to be allowed to live on campus.
The letter also said UNC should implement online-only instruction for the first five weeks of the semester as a minimum, and recommended the University “consider virtual classes for the entire fall semester.”
“To date a major part of our planning efforts remain incomplete,” Stewart said in the letter.
In a Wednesday email to UNC students, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the letter was not a mandate for UNC to take specific action, but the University has made progress towards aligning with the department’s recommendations.
Move-in for UNC students began Aug. 3, but Guskiewicz’s email said the University has reduced on-campus residential capacity to 64 percent.
“The University will continue to regularly advise and consult our partners at the OCHD as we navigate the days and weeks ahead,” he said in the email.
UNC classes begin on Monday.
Student and town leaders call for scaled-back reopening
The Orange County Health Department is not the only organization calling for a scaled-back campus reopening plan.
On July 29 — the same day Stewart sent the letter with the health department’s recommendations — a group of faculty and community leaders sent a letter addressed to Stewart and Dr. Erica Pettigrew, OCHD medical director, calling for the department to “order the University closed for normal business.”
“We know how this is going to turn out,” the letter states. “UNC has been promising, for weeks now, to define the thresholds and metrics that it will use for knowing when to close the university and offer all-remote classes, but they have told us nothing. We are worried about our community, and particularly worried about the unequal burden of morbidity and mortality that will impact the residents of Orange County.”
Cosigners of this letter include Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, Carrboro Town Council member Sammy Slade, UNC professor Jay Smith, UNC professor Michael Palm, the NC Public Service Workers Union and the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
Slade said if an outbreak were to occur on UNC’s campus, it could exhaust COVID-19 testing resources and hospital capacity that are already limited in Orange County.
“It would be really bad because we currently don't have enough testing or contact tracing without the quarter increase of population represented by UNC reopening,” he said.
Orange County currently has 1,308 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, according to the most recent data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Smith, a professor in the department of history, said the letter was just one of many efforts to get the University to adjust its reopening plans.
“I know I’m not alone in feeling a growing sense of desperation,” Smith said. “Since late May we have done numerous things … all of which were designed to get the attention of the administration, put pressure on the administration, bring about a course correction in their roadmap — and we were consistently ignored.”
“They seemed incredibly inflexible and deaf to all of the warnings that we’ve been pelting them with for two months — that frustration led to this letter,” he added.
Other local government officials have also joined the effort.
A Wednesday letter from Orange County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Penny Rich, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle and Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver that was addressed to University officials called for UNC to follow the recommendations made by the health department “to the fullest extent possible.”
“There is high anxiety amongst the elected bodies we represent and in our communities as we anticipate thousands of university students moving into the community from all over the state and country, many coming from areas that lack the same requirements we have locally for slowing the spread of COVID-19,” the letter said.
The letter also requested the University work with the health department to ensure sufficient resources are available to provide testing and community contact tracing to all students and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19, and update the 2020 Roadmap Community Standards to clearly establish expectations and safety protocols.
Orange County’s options
A Wednesday News & Observer article stated that Orange County can issue a stay-at-home order that would force UNC students to halt campus operations and move classes online.
But Rich said Orange County is not considering shutting down and going back into a stay-at-home order. She also said Orange County does not have the ability to shut the University down.
“The University lives in Chapel Hill, but Chapel Hill doesn't have any jurisdiction over the University,” she said.
Orange County is under a safer-at-home recommendation that expires Aug. 31.
UNC System spokesperson Josh Ellis said chancellors have been told to comply with any order or recommendation to shut down in-person learning that comes from the institution’s county health director, the News & Observer reported July 23.
But in a letter from Stewart to her board, which Rich provided to The Daily Tar Heel, Stewart said this is not true.
“Last week an article in the News & Observer stated that the UNC System would make the final decision about the campuses reopening, but that the Board of Governors would adhere to the recommendations from the local Health Director,” Stewart wrote in the letter. “There is no formal record of this and it appears the final decision remains with the UNC System, not the local campus.”
Stewart said Guskiewicz called her the Friday after she sent the July 29 recommendation and shared that he could not commit to implementing the recommendation as written, but that the University continues to decrease the number of students moving back to campus daily.
Stewart said the director of local health departments has the ability to determine an imminent hazard exists, but in order for the University to be shut down she would need substantive data, support from an epidemiologist and Orange County would most likely bear the costs of shutting down the UNC campus.
“This is not a realistic option,” she said.
Emergency Faculty Executive Committee meeting
The Faculty Executive Committee convened in an emergency meeting Wednesday conducted over Zoom for committee members to ask questions about the letter to Guskiewicz and Blouin, who were both at the meeting.
“We want to give you our best advice,” Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman said. “We want to let you know how people are feeling.”
At the meeting, Guskiewicz and Blouin emphasized that the University is in constant communication with the Orange County Health Department.
“I started and ended my phone conversations with both Erica and Quintana on Friday by saying how much we value this partnership, this critical partnership that we have with Orange County Health Department,” Guskiewicz said.
Committee member Barbara Entwisle said at the meeting that the committee felt “blindsided” to have been excluded from these recommendations.
“I think you have a good sense by now of how truly blindsided we all felt today when we saw that letter,” Entwisle said. “I thought that was a powerful message, one that we should hear — one that I actually would have much preferred to hear directly from the two of you.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.