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'New voices': UNC introduces approach to spring semester planning involving students

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A student studies on the quad near Carroll Hall while adhering to social distancing guidelines on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

The University is taking a new approach to planning for the spring semester — which includes a new Campus and Community Advisory Committee made up of faculty, students and community members — following an unsuccessful return to in-person classes this fall. 

Bob Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost, is leading the spring semester planning process. Three advisory groups will work together and report directly to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz regarding a potential return to campus. 

“One is very operational oriented, the other is a team of health, medical and public health experts and the third is a group of faculty, staff, students and local county representatives or community members,” Blouin said. “And that's a rather large team of about 25 people.”

Blouin said this new committee is a part of the University’s goal to include voices that were not prominently included in the decision-making process going into the fall semester. 

“There are students of color being able to voice their concerns and have a seat at the table, and community members who were excluded from many of the conversations in planning for the fall as well,” Ethan Phillips, one of the student committee members, said. “I am optimistic about new voices being included that will hopefully produce a more equitable and safe plan for the spring semester.”

Aside from redesigning the roadmap planning process, leaders are also approaching the spring semester from a different perspective and with less certainty. 

“When we were doing planning for the fall, it was very clear what we were going to be planning for,” Blouin said. “The decision had already been made by the System office and the Board of Governors that all 17 universities were going to do their very best to put their best effort forward to launch a reentry that included a significant component of residential learning and living.” 

Blouin said that as they wait for more clarity on whether or not the UNC System will mandate a return — or if a return to in-person instruction is even viable — the University is also learning from how other universities dealt with COVID-19 this fall. 

“Many of them are peers, similar in size, public, private, those that have been successful, those that have not been successful in terms of their own attempts to launch a semester,” Blouin said. 

In reflecting on the fall semester at UNC, Blouin said that the University had success in limiting COVID-19 transmission in areas where it could assert more control over student behavior, such as classrooms, research and other on-campus settings.  

“Where we did not succeed well is in those areas where we have a lot of social gatherings,” Blouin said. “And those primarily occur in the evening around social activities, many of them non-sanctioned activities by the University, and that was because many of them occurred off-campus.” 

Gustavo Gonzalez, a first-year exercise and sports science major, echoed Blouin’s concerns surrounding the University’s lack of authority over parties and off-campus events.

“At the end of the day, with what happened in the fall, kids are still going to go to parties and not follow the rules,” Gonzalez said. “It's really tough for the University to tell kids, ‘Hey, don't go to parties.’”

Blouin also said the density and natural dynamics of on-campus dorms increased the velocity of the spread. 

“Those were all things that we observed and would need to mitigate if we were to attempt to bring our campus together like we tried to end this in the fall, but do it in a more successful way,” Blouin said. 

Additionally, public health concerns and uncertainty surrounding the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to pose new challenges.

“I think the central challenge is trying to weigh public health considerations against the academic pursuits of the University and the student body, understanding that the students, faculty and community have been disrupted in operations now since March,” Phillips said. “But that student, staff, faculty and community public health and safety is the paramount concern.”

The newly formed committee has yet to meet, and there are many decisions yet to be made. But Blouin said that he is always optimistic about UNC’s students. 

“We want to do the very best for our students,” Blouin. “We believe our students want the very best education that Carolina can offer, and we're just going to do our very best to try to maximize that opportunity for our students.” 


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