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Faculty remain wary of spring reopening plans despite in-person class delay

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill waiting in line at the CURRENT Art Space to get tested for COVID-19. Photo taken on Jan. 19, 2021.

For some members of the UNC community, the University’s Jan. 7 announcement that in-person classes would be delayed until Feb. 8 was a relief, but also an indicator of the potential risks of a spring campus reopening — albeit one less ambitious in scale than in the fall.

The decision to begin the semester remotely, released about a week before the start of the move-in period for on-campus students, came as the state's COVID-19 landscape continued to change. 

At the time of the announcement, several states reported cases of a more transmissible variant of the virus, and daily COVID-19 cases crossed the 10,000 threshold in North Carolina. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told The Daily Tar Heel that by pushing back the start of in-person classes and extending the move-in period, the University hopes to provide flexibility to students worried about the safety of travel, while also distancing the arrival of students from the holiday season.

Provost Bob Blouin said the University consulted with a range of sources, such as UNC and county health officials, before deciding to delay in-person classes, in a statement to the Daily Tar Heel. 

“Changes to the University’s spring plans were made with the health of the campus and community in mind,” Blouin said in the statement. “These decisions were not made lightly, and I appreciate how difficult the past year has been on Carolina’s students, faculty and staff, who have been asked to adjust to difficult and shifting circumstances.”

But Joseph Richards, a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching fellow in the communications department, said given the pleas issued by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen for North Carolinians to only leave home for essential activities, the decision to bring students back is an unnecessary risk. 

And for Richards, the three-week delay is an acknowledgement of the danger.

“What I'm confused about is by acknowledging that, why not just do a completely remote semester?” they said. “It's hard not to see (bringing students on campus) as being okay with a certain number of people being put at risk for this disease. That’s what bothers me. Because if you acknowledge that COVID is bad, if you acknowledge that it is out of control, as far as spread goes, then I don't see why you wouldn't take every single precaution that you could to put the health and wellbeing of students, workers, staff and faculty ahead of any other consideration.”

Mimi Chapman, chairperson of the Faculty Executive Committee and co-chairperson of the Campus and Community Advisory Committee, said although bringing students back onto campus incurs risk, keeping students at home, too, could be problematic.

“If students are staying home and can't engage in their education, or they are depressed, or in dangerous living situations either psychologically or physically, that's a moral risk too,” she said. “There is moral hazard whichever way you go in this situation.”

Last semester, on-campus students with hardships, such as lack of reliable internet access, could request approval to remain in campus housing by filling out a waiver. 

Chapman said she anticipates that reduced housing capacity and the University’s surveillance testing program will lower the chances of COVID-19 spread.

“I think everybody has been learning about the reality of this as we've gone along,” Chapman said. “The naivete that some members of the campus community may have had in the fall should be gone.”

Reeves Moseley, student body president and co-chairperson of the CCAC, said in addition to the University’s testing regime and single occupancy dorm rooms, student recognition of the necessity of state, local and University guidelines will help prevent a repeat of the fall semester.

“We can’t have a slip and slide outside of HoJo, we can’t have parties off campus,” Moseley said. “We're not getting out of this anytime soon. And people’s family members, friends, community members, they're going to inevitably pass away. People have to realize that there's a lot to be considered in how we navigate this." 

“Because if you acknowledge that COVID is bad, if you acknowledge that it is out of control, as far as spread goes, then I don't see why you wouldn't take every single precaution that you could to put the health and wellbeing of students, workers, staff and faculty ahead of any other consideration.”

Moseley said he and Chapman, as well as the rest of the CCAC, will hold an emergency meeting Thursday for an update on the outlook for the semester, as the CCAC hasn’t met since the start of winter break.

Kathy Atwater, a member of CCAC and the Marian Cheek Jackson Center’s Community Advocacy Coordinator, said she approves of the decision to slow down the campus reopening, but whether or not the decision to move the start of in-person classes and extend move-in dates to February will be effective depends on the community.

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“It depends on us as people, if we are taking the necessary precautions,” she said. “Wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing, not having large gatherings. It depends on us.”

In addition to concerns about the health risks of reopening, communications professor Michael Palm said he worries the uncertainty that comes with delaying the start of classes instead of canceling them altogether could negatively impact the emotional and financial well-being of students. 

He said it will also add stress onto instructors teaching in-person classes. 

Additionally, history professor Jay Smith said he is concerned for professors and students who may have to move the rest of their courses online if the University decides to switch to full remote instruction in February.

“It's an added complication that faculty would prefer not to have to contend with, and students too, going back and forth between different modes of learning and different modes of teaching,” Smith said.

A spokesperson for the University said in an email that the provost's office wrote a letter to faculty on the day the announcement was made providing resources to assist with the delay of in-person classes and transition to remote learning.

Richards said the University’s decisions last fall eroded their trust of the administration. They said they think that as the UNC community faces the stress of uncertain class formats, the spread of COVID-19, political violence and other factors that may affect the spring semester, the community will have to look to one another for support.

“I think it’s upon us as instructors and faculty, chairs of departments, grad student workers and undergrads, we're going to have to be the ones who show ourselves grace and humanity and flexibility and take care of each other," Richards said. "Because we're not going to get that from administration." 

University Desk Editor Maddie Ellis contributed reporting.