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As UNC reopens in-person, students and faculty have COVID-19 safety concerns

Students walk past Wilson Library on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

As UNC begins the fall semester, thousands of people are returning to campus without a vaccine mandate, consistent gathering limits or physical distancing procedures. 

This “return to normal” leaves some students and faculty concerned that the delta variant — which some experts say is as contagious as chickenpox — will lead to a surge of breakthrough and unvaccinated COVID-19 cases on campus.

Mimi Chapman, chairperson of the faculty, said she thinks the University should impose a vaccine mandate and gathering limits, along with a few weeks of remote instruction to safely implement them. 

Chapman said she is worried that faculty and staff, who have until Sept. 15 to attest their vaccination or be required to get tested weekly, won’t be able to reach full immunity before UNC reopens – leaving a considerable percentage of people without protection against COVID-19 variants.

“We need time for people who haven’t been vaccinated to get those doses before we start operating in a completely normal capacity,” Chapman said. “Better to err on the side of safety on the front end rather than get into a crisis situation three weeks down the road.”

Chapman has brought this argument to public platforms, such as Twitter and the Faculty Executive Committee, sparking conversation among students, staff and faculty who also have concerns about UNC’s reopening plans. 

The FEC shared a resolution at their Aug. 4 meeting requesting that the UNC System delegate authority to the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor and provost to require proof of vaccination for students and employees. The resolution also asked the University to provide masking and gathering guidance based on healthcare system capacity and community viral load.

Students look toward an in-person return

Brooks Fitts, a senior,  said he is excited for the return to in-person learning but is concerned the UNC System isn’t putting enough precautions in place. 

“As a UNC student, I’m sad because I think we all know what’s going to inevitably happen,” Fitts commented on Twitter. “It’s like we’re all on a train heading towards the same disaster as last year. (The) UNC System needs to give Kevin Guskiewicz the power he needs to keep campus safe.”

Fitts said his worry is rooted in students participating in activities without masks or socially distancing. Not only is Fitts concerned about campus safety, but he is also worried for his own safety as a person with diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that people with diabetes are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19. 

“I am fully vaccinated but I do have diabetes, so if I were to get it hopefully I’d be alright,” Fitts said. “I’m seeing tons of people still at frat court, going in and out of houses. People still aren’t taking it seriously.”

On Aug. 11, UNC announced a six-case cluster of COVID-19 stemming from an event held by the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Kaylee Tackett, a senior, said she is worried that without a vaccine mandate and adherence to safety precautions, this cluster won’t be the last. 

“This semester is just kind of doomed,” Tackett said. “We have healthcare people in what’s supposed to be a safe setting outdoors still spreading the virus. I feel like that just shows there’s no way to run the campus as the University is trying to.”

Along with concerns about COVID-19 spread, Tackett said she feels like the University hasn’t provided enough remote course options for upperclassmen who don’t feel safe returning to campus.

“If there would have been a more inclusive option, I would have taken a full remote semester,” Tackett said. “For me as a senior, it wasn’t really an option considering I only have two semesters left and I had classes that I needed to take to fulfill my degree requirements. I’m here on scholarship and financial aid, so I can’t really afford to take an extra year for funsies.”

The University recommends that students who feel uncomfortable returning to campus consult resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Wellness and undergraduate academic advisors to help with academic planning. 

Current University policy 

On Aug. 11, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz led a Campus and Community Advisory Committee meeting to address concerns about the upcoming return to in-person instruction. The University’s reopening plans include wearing masks when indoors and while attending any indoor events held by registered student organizations.

“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 in the meeting. “... Having said this, we know that we will have positive cases including some breakthrough cases in some of those individuals who are fully vaccinated. But with our strong vaccination rate and mandatory testing for those who are not, our experts, some of whom have joined us here today in this meeting, believe that we can navigate any spread of the virus and maintain our operations.”

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UNC will follow the UNC System 'Get Vaccinated or Get Tested Weekly' mandate that requires students, faculty and staff to either attest their vaccination or participate in weekly COVID-19 testing. UNC System President Peter Hans stated in a memo that under North Carolina’s state law, only the North Carolina Commission for Public Health can mandate immunizations.

A representative from the UNC System did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

As of Aug. 16, 86 percent of students and 78 percent of faculty and staff have attested their COVID-19 vaccination at UNC – but Chapman said she worries this isn’t enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“If you want to have a fully 'normal' fall semester, then you need to use every tool in your toolbox to get there,” Chapman said. “At this point we’re not – we’re doing a 'mandate lite.'”


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Faculty Executive Committee passed a resolve at an Aug. 4 meeting requesting that the UNC System allow the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor and provost the authority to require proof of vaccination for students and employees. The FEC passed a resolution. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

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