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Tuesday September 21st

UNC community reacts to suspension of Alert Carolina cluster notifications

<p>DTH Photo Illustration. A student looks at the latest Alert Carolina notification about a cluster at Cobb Resident Hall. The university will no longer send Alert Carolina notifications about clusters on campus, UNC announced on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.</p>
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DTH Photo Illustration. A student looks at the latest Alert Carolina notification about a cluster at Cobb Resident Hall. The university will no longer send Alert Carolina notifications about clusters on campus, UNC announced on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.

The University announced Friday that it will no longer use Alert Carolina messages to inform the campus community about new COVID-19 clusters. Instead, information about clusters will be provided on the Carolina Together website and University social media. 

Students and faculty say they are confused by this decision and view the communication change as a step backwards for transparency, which they said had already been lacking throughout the reopening process.

“Why are you giving me that added task of going to a website and hitting refresh?” Deb Aikat, a journalism and media professor and member of the Faculty Executive Committee, said. “This doesn't make sense and I sincerely feel this is against the culture of transparency that we aspire.” 

Skyler Singleton, a senior majoring in political science and history, said she is concerned this new method of communicating clusters will be less equitable and timely. 

While the University will still be sharing the information, she said it will be in a less visible way that adds responsibility onto students, faculty and staff to seek out the information themselves by regularly checking the Carolina Together website and University social media — something that is not already part of her daily routine.

“This change in our communications in no way diminishes the University’s sense of urgency in ensuring that this information is shared in a timely, transparent and accessible fashion,” Vice Chancellor for Institutional Integrity and Risk Management George Battle said in an email Friday.

Since Aug. 14, the University has sent nine Alert Carolina messages notifying the campus community of 12 COVID-19 clusters at on-campus and off-campus housing affiliated with the University.

The most recent cluster was identified at Cobb Residence Hall on Aug. 27 and announced via Alert Carolina. Yet the following day, the University announced Alert Carolina would no longer be used for the purpose of communicating clusters.

The Friday email said the Alert Carolina Emergency Notification system is meant to communicate the most critical and urgent information for the safety of the campus and that the University is following best practices in its use.

Singleton said she found the Alert Carolina messages helpful as it made her aware of clusters in real time. 

UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that the University believes now is an appropriate time to move away from using the Alert Carolina emergency notification system due to the de-densification of campus, the downward trend in the positivity rate and widespread awareness among the campus community about the presence of COVID-19.

“It is equally important to avoid the campus becoming desensitized to the alerts,” UNC Media Relations said.

Approximately 1,000 students remain in campus residence halls and "the positivity rate for COVID-19 cases has decreased to 10% during the past three days," according to the Friday email.

The positivity rate for the week of Aug. 24 through Aug. 30 was 29.2 percent, a decrease of three percentage points from the previous week, according to UNC’s COVID-19 dashboard. 

UNC Media Relations also said the decision was made in consultation with Margolis Healy —  a consulting firm for Clery Act compliance matters — the Department of Education, University leadership and campus security officials.

Joseph Richards, a graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication, said they do not understand the change since the pandemic and threat of clusters is still ongoing. 

Richards said they believe Alert Carolina messages about clusters remain necessary for the health and safety of students, faculty and staff in the middle of a pandemic.

“I feel like by putting the information where you essentially have to go digging for it yourself, it feels completely like a public relations move,” Richards said.

Aikat agreed that the decision to stop Alert Carolina messages about clusters does not make sense. He pointed out that in January a notification was sent to inform the campus community when one student got the mumps — but will no longer be sending messages about infections impacting more people.

Singleton said it seems that the University has devalued the significance of new clusters.

“I really think that getting rid of the Alert Carolina updates is going to make it so people feel like COVID doesn't exist here, and that COVID isn't an issue at Chapel Hill, when it still will be,” Singleton said.

UNC Media Relations said the University will remain in compliance with the Clery Act as it shifts its cluster communication methods. If the current situation evolves to be a serious and significant threat to the health and safety of those who remain on campus, the University will return to using Alert Carolina to announce new clusters, Media Relations said. 

university@dailytarheel.com

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