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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: An open letter from faculty to the UNC community

Our planning for the Spring 2021 semester must be guided by a sober and realistic assessment of the pandemic conditions we face.  

  • Nationally, we are averaging, as of this writing, 174,000 new cases per day, nearly twice the daily average as recently as Nov. 3. (Dr. Anthony Fauci has repeatedly stated that the country needs fewer than 10,000 new cases per day in order to assert "some level of control" over COVID-19.)
  • New daily cases are at least three times higher nationally today than they were when UNC classes began on Aug. 10, and the same is true in North Carolina. 
  • COVID-19 cases on college campuses continue to rise dramatically. Despite more campuses closing and pivoting to online classes, cases on college campuses jumped nationally to 321,000 in the first three weeks of November – just as students were preparing to leave campus for the holidays.
  • Evidence suggests that campus cases have caused significant surges in nearby communities.
  • Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, both nationally and in North Carolina.
  • Despite the very promising recent news about forthcoming vaccines, no vaccine will be widely available before mid-2021.
  • One of our national peers, the University of Michigan, recently announced that it would be sharply reducing in-person instruction and residential density for its upcoming Winter term (January to May). “What’s changed is the national context,” noted UM President Mark Schlissel. "The outbreak is blossoming again all over the country, including in our state."

UNC's testing plans for spring are vastly improved, but testing itself is not enough to ensure a safe campus. 

  • In various meetings with department leaders, administrators have said they want about 20 to 30 percent of classes to be taught in person. 
  • It was reported at a recent task force meeting that the University's goal is to raise the number of undergraduates living on campus from 1,000 (after the fall "off-ramp" pivot) to 3,000, with many of them sharing suites and bathrooms. 
  • Monitoring off-campus activities will remain a serious challenge. 

As a result, we have every reason to expect that the University will – once again – be overwhelmed by infections when classes resume.

Are Chapel Hill's leaders ready to face that reality when it comes?

Last summer, the administration opened campus despite an urgent advisory from the Orange County Health Department, which they failed to publicize. The provost has already signaled that once students return to campus for spring, there’s no turning back, saying, “Once we get our students back on campus, I don’t believe we have an off-ramp." 

Given current conditions and UNC’s track record, the plans for spring are doomed to repeat too many of the failures of the fall. The only ethical decision is to cancel face-to-face instruction (with the exception of classes that demand it, such as clinical experience) and to keep on-campus residency reserved for those who have special circumstances. 

Roughly 1,000 undergraduates with special circumstances lived on campus this fall. We were able to accommodate them without spikes and clusters. Let’s not more than triple that number. Similarly, we recognize that there are staff who must continue to work on campus; they should receive ample, high-quality PPE and hazard pay.

The vaccine trial results of recent weeks provide good reasons to hope that we need to endure only one more remote semester. Another semester of remote-only instruction will intensify the University’s financial challenges, and a group of UNC faculty, graduate students and campus workers is charting an alternative path to restoring the institution's fiscal health, one that would not involve any furloughs and layoffs. 

We call on UNC administrators to put public health first, to show courageous leadership and to accept the realities that the unchecked coronavirus has created for us all. 

Deciding now to go remote for the spring will allow students and their families time to plan for the spring semester. It will also save lives in communities across the state and nation until the pandemic is brought under control. 


Deb Aikat, Associate Professor, Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Emily Baragwanath, Associate Professor, Classics

Trude Bennett, Associate Professor Emerita, School of Public Health

Lucia Binotti, Professor, Romance Studies

Karen Booth, Associate Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies

Patricia Bryan, Professor, Law

Kathryn Burns, Professor, History

Kia Caldwell, Professor, African, African American, and Diaspora Studies

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Pamela Cooper, Associate Professor,  English & Comparative Literature

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Associate Professor, School of Information & Library Science

Elyse Crystall, Teaching Associate Professor, English & Comparative Literature

María DeGuzmán, Eugene H. Falk Distinguished Professor, English & Comparative Literature

Mark Driscoll, Associate Professor, Asian Studies

Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor, Religious Studies

Maxine Eichner, Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor, Law

Arturo Escobar, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology

Sue Estroff, Professor, Social Medicine

Erik Gellman, Associate Professor, History

Don Haggis, Professor, Classics

Elizabeth Havice, Associate Professor, Geography

Glenn Hinson, Associate Professor, American Studies

Serenella Iovino, Professor, Romance Studies

Jerma A. Jackson, Associate Professor, History

Sharon James, Professor, Classics

Kenneth Janken, Professor, African, African American, & Diaspora Studies 

Diane Juffras, Professor, School of Government

Mark Katz, John P. Barker Distinguished Professor, Music 

Emil’ Keme (K'iche' Maya Nation), Associate Professor, Romance Studies

Scott Kirsch, Professor, Geography

Sherryl Kleinman, Professor Emerita, Sociology

Seth Kotch, Associate Professor, American Studies

Daniel Kreiss, Associate Professor, Hussman School of Media and Journalism

Beth Kurtz-Costes, Professor, Psychology

Michael C. Lambert, Associate Professor, African, African American, and Diaspora Studies

Marc Lange, Theda Perdue Distinguished Professor, Philosophy

Miguel La Serna, Professor, History

Christian C. Lentz, Associate Professor, Geography

Raúl Necochea López, Associate Professor, Social Medicine 

Jodi Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence, Religious Studies

John McGowan, Professor Emeritus, English & Comparative Literature

Terence McIntosh, Associate Professor, History

Ted Mouw, Professor, Sociology

Fred Naiden, Professor, History

Ram Neta, Professor, Philosophy

Don Nonini, Professor, Anthropology

James O’Hara, George L. Paddison Professor of Latin, Classics

Michael Palm, Associate Professor, Communication

Susan Pennybacker, Chalmers W. Poston Distinguished Professor, History

Louis A. Pérez, J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor, History

Tonia Poteat, Assistant Professor, Social Medicine

C.D.C. Reeve, Delta Kappa Epsilon Distinguished Professor, Philosophy

Tom Reinert, Associate Professor, English & Comparative Literature

Annette Rodriguez, Assistant Professor, American Studies

Victoria Rovine, Professor, Art & Art History

Patricia Sawin, Associate Professor, American Studies

Kumi Silva, Associate Professor, Communication

elin o’Hara slavick, Professor, Art 

Jay Smith, Professor, History

Sara Smith, Associate Professor, Geography

Lynda Stone, Samuel M. Holton Distinguished Professor, School of Education

Hồng-Ân Truong, Associate Professor, Art

Katherine Turk, Associate Professor, History

Michael Waltman, Associate Professor, Communication

Ellen Welch, Professor, Romance Studies

Rachel Willis, Professor, American Studies

Erika K. Wilson, Associate Professor, Wade Edwards Distinguished Scholar, Law

Megan Winget, Teaching Assistant Professor, School of Information & Library Science

Nadia Yaqub, Professor, Asian Studies