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Letter: UNC Administration must listen to the demands of the President's Council

To the Editor:

The Student Body Campus President’s Council called an emergency meeting on Sept. 3 to talk about UNC’s COVID-19 policies, inviting the chancellor to attend. Despite his professed commitment to "raucous and rowdy debate," he declined to engage, saying that students were looking only for publicity.

The odd thing is that the University has thrown itself into the business of publicity, employing a year-round, highly-paid staff, including the vice chancellor of communications, whose salary is $359,155. One staff member even called the student meeting a “publicity stunt.” 

We fear that the purpose of PR at the moment is to blunt criticism of the anything-but-normal situation on campus.

As of Wednesday, there have been 586 cases among students and employees since August.

Before classes began, 500 instructors signed a letter asking administrators to move to remote teaching for the first four to six weeks of the semester, given the transmissibility of the delta variant. The chancellor did not reply. 

Perhaps PR experts recommend insulting students and ignoring faculty.

Anyone who listens to the recording of the President’s Council meeting will find that student leaders have done their homework, something we wish administrative leaders would do.

We all have good reasons to worry. Ventilation is crucial for mitigating COVID-19 transmission, and buildings vary in their capacity. UNC’s experts have told everyone to wear masks indoors, but what about the kind of mask? 

N95s (called “respirators”) are superior to other masks, and Duke is supplying them to instructors. At UNC, instructors are told to keep teaching indoors if they are exposed to COVID-19, vaccinated and asymptomatic. For accurate test results, they must wait three to five days after exposure to get tested, possibly shedding the virus in crowded classes and elsewhere.

Clusters are defined differently than last year. We learned this from the DTH: “you could be living in a dorm with more than five people infected. But if they were infected at different timepoints and events, you would likely have never been notified.” The definitional change came from the NCDHHS, but it does nothing to help students who may get infected in dorms. It does, however, present a more positive image of UNC, as fewer clusters will appear on the dashboard.

In the last year, administrators have repeatedly mentioned the low positivity rate on campus. But we need transparency about how the rate is calculated, preferably on the dashboard. Which of the four methods does UNC use? 

The rate on Sept. 8 is 1.96 percent; the NC daily positivity rate is 15.8 percent. We anticipate hearing that campus is a highly vaccinated community. But the discrepancy between campus and state rates is concerning. Attestation of vaccination is not the same as documentation, and random checking of documents isn’t enough.

In the late summer of 2020, one criterion for moving to remote teaching was the number of hospitalizations, especially in ICUs, with COVID-19 patients. Those numbers in Triangle hospitals are very high, and staff are burning out. When this happens, patients with conditions other than COVID will not find a bed. Patients at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill come from many parts of the state, not just Orange County.

At the Faculty Council meeting last week, we were told there is zero percent transmission in classes. One faculty member asked, is this because of lack of information? Students often don’t know classmates sitting nearby, so they’d be unable to name them during contact tracing. That administrators failed to anticipate this basic difficulty in their reopening plans suggests that their preparations were rushed and resistant to the appearance of new evidence. 

No wonder students are anxious and angry. So are we.

Administrators should listen to the reasonable demands of the President’s Council, starting with an apology for their absence at the table.

Sherryl Kleinman

Emerita Professor of Sociology

Jay Smith

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