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'Operating in a state of fear': Faculty petitions for 4-6 weeks of remote instruction


Students return to campus for the first day of classes of the fall semester, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. 

Students gather in the Pit, picnics and frisbee games fill the quads and lecture halls are packed with students as some squeeze in and make seats for themselves in the aisles or on the floor. 

After over a year of modified class instruction modes and social distancing, UNC's campus is operating under near pre-pandemic conditions. But for 500 faculty and staff members, this return to in-person instruction has been the cause of serious concern and confusion.

Those faculty and staff members have signed a petition to move classes online for the first four to six weeks of the fall semester.

Titled “The Risks are Too High,” the open letter expressed concern surrounding the recent increase in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant, along with the University’s lack of planning for an off-ramp option without a vaccine mandate or enforcing physical distancing on campus.

 “I am appalled at the lack of planning for this semester," former sociology professor and petition signee Sherryl Kleinman said in a statement. "The delta variant clearly puts students, staff, faculty and surrounding communities at risk. With ICUs filling, people with serious illnesses that aren’t COVID-related will have trouble finding beds."  

Kleinman added that the chancellor has an ethical obligation to mandate vaccinations and move classes to remote teaching to give everyone time to get vaccinated. 

According to UNC Media Relations Manager Carly Miller, as of Friday, 88 percent of students have submitted proof of vaccination. That number is also reflected on UNC's COVID-19 dashboard as of Tuesday.

“The University has layers of safety precautions in place – primarily focused on vaccines, testing and masks – to limit the spread on our campus,” Miller said in an email. “All of our students and staff will be vaccinated or tested, and everyone will be wearing a mask indoors.”

During a Campus and Community Advisory Committee meeting on Aug. 11, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the University has no intention of moving to remote instruction. 

"We don’t believe that we have to choose between safety and in-person learning, we can do both with the right approach,” Guskiewicz said. “Our infectious disease public health experts, along with continued consultation with the Orange County Health Department, have given us confidence that this is the right approach, and they support our plan moving forward.”

Although the University is working with OCHD, faculty members like communications professor Michael Palm are frustrated that only instructors with special approval are allowed to teach remote courses, none of which are permitted to be fully asynchronous.

“I think that people are operating in a state of fear, not only of being exposed, but of being disciplined if they decide that the only ethical way that they can teach a class — because of positive infections among their students, among themselves or their family — is to hold a single class remotely,” Palm said. “There's no clear guidance, there's no clear assurances about doing so.”

Currently, professors and graduate instructors are following a flowchart document provided by the University for guidance on what to do if they are exposed to COVID-19.

The document states that vaccinated instructors should only quarantine following exposure to COVID-19 if they are symptomatic and waiting on results, or if they test positive. If a vaccinated instructor is exposed and asymptomatic, they are required to get tested and continue in-person instruction while they wait for their results. 

“I don't know a single instructor — faculty or grad instructor — right now who is not confused, demoralized, scared and angry at UNC right now,” Palm said.

In a formal notice Tuesday, Provost Bob Blouin and Amir Barzin, director and lead physician of the Carolina Together Testing Program, wrote that UNC faculty know that they cannot change a course's mode of instruction without formal accommodation from the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

They also said there may be instances when courses will be moved to remote learning temporarily due to unforeseen circumstances — but that these would be few in number.

While University leaders have not responded to the petition, it has gained exposure across media outlets including NC Policy Watch and WRAL since being published earlier this month. 

Palm said many professors have taken their own health and safety precautions in the classroom. He is currently conducting class outdoors and has communicated with his students that their health and safety is more important to him than their grade.

“I think that kind of interpersonal humaneness is the only thing we can do in the face of an utter lack of leadership or guidance from the administration,” Palm said. 


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