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'They simply did not listen': Student leaders discuss UNC's one-week reopening

(Clockwise from top left) Daniel Bowen (senior), Veda Patil (senior), Collyn Smith (junior) and Lamar Richards (sophomore) speak up about UNC's sudden and drastic switch to remote classes just a week after reopening. Photos courtesy of Daniel Bowen, Veda Patil, Collyn Smith, and Lamar Richards.

With classes switching to remote instruction and residence halls emptying, student leaders are frustrated that the University took so long to acknowledge a decision they advocated for — months before classes even began.

“I wanted it to be a moment that felt like a moment of vindication because we were right,” Undergraduate Student Government Senate Representative Collyn Smith said. “But I can’t even feel like that because there’s so many issues and there’s so many lives that are at stake here that have been played with as if we were lab rats.”

Smith said he feels betrayed by the University because it refused to act until case numbers and publicity spiked, even though student leaders had been warning about this for months. He said the road to this decision led him to believe that the University prioritized money over the health of both its off and on-campus students. 

“I knew it was going to happen and I think a lot of us knew this was inevitable, that this was just some little summer camp that people were here for two weeks for and then said bye,” Smith said.

Smith is a member of the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity. This commission issued recommendations for de-densified housing and all remote courses in July.

UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that student leaders and organizations have been an important part of the planning process and have met regularly with the University since May regarding classroom logistics, student support services, campus messaging and prioritizing inclusivity in all aspects of fall planning. 

The representative said Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and his senior leadership team, and many of UNC’s infectious disease and public health experts, held several "Town Hall" meeting webinars for students, faculty and staff to share feedback and concerns and ask questions.

“As I've listened to students over the last eight or nine weeks ... it’s clear that nothing beats the on-campus Carolina experience. We know students learn in different ways and grow in different ways,” Guskiewicz said during a webinar on June 11.

Lamar Richards, chairperson of the commission, said while previously the commission was left out of key conversations, it will advise the administration with student input going forward. 

"I think that this was a very difficult decision to arrive at, and even though we haven't advocated for it from the very beginning we never once said it wouldn't take a toll on Carolina, because we knew that," Richards said. 

Veda Patil, Campus Y co-president and Bonner Leader, said UNC is finally doing what it should have done to prevent further spread of COVID-19. But she said she doesn’t give the University much credit because it ignored student leadership and created avoidable cases. 

“This decision was made against the backdrop of incredible negligence and disregard for people's lives and safety,” Patil said. “I don’t think now is the time to be praising UNC. We should be very vocal and critical about how preventable all of this was and the fact that they simply did not listen.”

UNC announced the suspension of in-person classes and the “de-densification” of residence halls on Monday — a little over an hour before tuition was due.

“I feel like for a lot of people that was an interesting moment, like ‘Huh, just a funny coincidence,’” Patil said.

Student activists said their frustrations included the nonchalant discussion of issues, lack of accountability from upper administration and the Board of Governors and ignoring warnings from students all the way up to Orange County officials. 

Smith said Provost Bob Blouin's statement from the Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday — "I don't apologize for trying" — was a slap in the face. 

“Keep that same energy when people are dying, when you’re at funerals for students,” Smith said. “The congratulatory pat on the back for doing literally the bare minimum that you’ve known was the good decision for months. It's embarrassing for you to sit there in your position as University leader and say that your priority is community and student health because literally hearing that, my jaw dropped.”

Patil said the next steps UNC should take are class cancellation for the next few days, an extension of the pass/fail option for the fall semester and the assurance of resources to housing-insecure and food-insecure students. 

In Monday’s email, the University said students without reliable internet access, international students and athletes would have the option to stay in their on-campus housing. On Thursday, Guskiewicz sent an email saying that all undergraduate classes will be paused on Monday and Tuesday to allow students to catch their breath and transition off campus.

“People are going to be left homeless by UNC,” Daniel Bowen, Undergraduate Chief of Staff of the Executive Board, said. “I just want to make sure that process does not filter out too many students who still rely on University housing.”

Carolina Housing said in a Tuesday email that the University will have a formal review process for students who must remain on campus, prioritizing some students, including those who lack safe alternative housing or have high-risk family members.

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Bowen said he wants there to be more discussion of the Carolina Student Impact Fund and student jobs on campus — and more broadly for UNC-Chapel Hill to serve as an example for other UNC System schools that are still on track to open as planned. 

“They have even fewer resources than UNC does and fewer connections to the media,” Bowen said. “We really need to think and be realistic about what’s going to happen in the spring and not try to rush things yet again.”

University Editor Maddie Ellis contributed reporting.