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The Daily Tar Heel

Welcome to the first episode of "Heel Talk," a Daily Tar Heel podcast bringing you in-depth University news. 

In this episode, Heel Talk host Cassia Sari talks with University Desk Editor Allie Kelly about COVID-19 on campus. 

Heel Talk Episode 1: COVID on campus

Heel Talk Episode 1: COVID on campus.



Host Cassia Sari: Hello, and welcome to the first episode of Heel Talk this fall. As your one-stop shop for University news, we find it appropriate to dedicate our first episode back to something students are reminded of daily: COVID on campus. Today, I've invited The Daily Tar Heel’s University Desk Editor Allie Kelly to talk about the state of COVID-19 at UNC. Welcome to Heel Talk, Allie.

University Desk Editor Allie Kelly: Hi, thanks for having me on.

CS: So how has it been to be back in the classroom?

AK: It's been an adjustment. I think, for most students on campus, we haven't been in a classroom in probably 18 months, and so, it's a little wild to be really sitting in a lecture hall again, in a classroom again.

CS: It's definitely been an adjustment. You recently wrote an article regarding how the University has been handling COVID-19: its positivity rate, some clusters that we've had around campus. Do you just want to touch a little bit on that? And then we'll jump into it.

AK: Yeah, so most of the data that we get on COVID-19 is from the Carolina Together Testing Program, their COVID dashboard. So, by August 24, 2020, the University’s COVID positivity rate had surpassed 30 percent, and by comparison, it's about 1.94 percent right now. So, I think vaccinations are definitely helping in that respect. About 92 percent of students have attested that they are vaccinated. And in the last week, week and a half from 9/3 to 9/9, there were 69 positive cases on campus.

CS: I wonder what it's going to look like in about a week once we get those statistics about the football game that recently happened this past Saturday, just to see what kind of numbers come out of that. If we're seeing clusters, just five to seven positive cases in a cluster in these small residence halls, what's going to happen when we have mass amounts of students all standing together at a football game.

AK: One of the things that I would mention is that the University uses the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services definition of cluster. So that's usually five or more COVID cases with initial positive test results within a 14-day period of each other. And they have to have kind of a plausible epidemiological link between those cases. And that's how we're looking at clusters. Obviously, not all cases are going to fall under that criteria. And so, I think what you mentioned about the football game will be really interesting, if there was a significant amount of people there. I'm not sure the exact number yet, but there was not, you know, masks were kind of highly encouraged. And I know that announcers would bring it up during the game. But I would say most people that I saw at the game were not masked. It'll be a little bit of a waiting game to see if we can get that data on how much the football game causes or does not cause a spike in cases. 

CS: In regards to the faculty, I know that they recently had a petition that received 500 signees, I believe, titled 'The Risks Are Too High,' and that was essentially a faculty led petition to vouch for about four to six weeks of remote learning. What do you feel about that? Do you think that now that we're four weeks into class, would that really be effective at this point? Or would it really just be another hill to get over for students who are finally getting comfortable with going back into the classroom because they've had to for the past four weeks? 

AK: Yeah, I think that there's a lot of angles to look at that from. There's definitely the experience of students that, you know, a lot of us just got back in the classroom for the first time in a really long time, and going back online, I think both for professors being able to do lesson plans and then also students being able to learn in an environment that works for them, could be really disruptive, especially in the way that that's inherently a really abrupt change. But of course, safety is a concern. And so, I think a lot of students are struggling, even if they're asymptomatic and vaccinated, like if they've been in any situation that might have been a close COVID-19 contact, like can they go to class? The University and the Carolina Together Testing Program is kind of discouraging students from getting tested more than once a week if they are asymptomatic. You know, I think that there's so far only the Carolina Union testing center and then the Campus Health is testing, but Campus Health actually just announced late last Thursday that they will no longer be open on Sundays or conducting COVID-19 tests on Sundays. So that means that students will only be able to get tested six days a week without going to, you know, an urgent care.

CS: Part of what's been kind of frustrating for me as a student has been, once again we are getting hope from faculty and leadership, but we're not getting actual plans. We're not getting this is what will happen if the worst-case scenario happens. What we're getting is, you know, ‘There are good models out there for us to follow. So, let's hope that, you know, we see a downward trend in cases and work around that.’ There was recently a faculty council meeting, I think, last week on September 6, where Chancellor Guskiewicz said something along the lines of ‘With the hope that this will peak very soon and level off.’ But do we have anything in place for when that does level off or if it doesn't level off and things just get worse?

AK: I will start off by saying that the administration has been very vocal that they have no intention of going online this semester. And that has been in significant opposition from a lot of Faculty Council and Faculty Executive Committee, who generally have been very vocal about needing an off-ramp plan for student learning and, you know, really how to teach if we had to go online and step out of the classroom for four to six weeks or longer. I think for students that can be really stressful because the way that everything went down in spring 2020. And for that to be the precedence of this is what school looks like when it goes online and even last fall, and to an extent last spring, I just think that both faculty and students are in a position of that was not an ideal learning environment. And it was, I think, hard for a lot of people for a lot of collective reasons and a lot of individual reasons. And so, you know, the lack of a clear, I will use the word that I think faculty typically use is an off-ramp type plan has created some concern in the community because what we're doing being back in the classroom is a really big adjustment. And to have to pivot that immediately back to online would just be especially difficult having just stepped back in class.

CS: So, Student Body President Lamar Richards called for an emergency meeting on Friday, September 3, and part of this meeting was over the release of their ‘Enough is Enough’ statement. That statement got 250 signees. And a big part of that statement was students echoing vaccine mandates, increased testing centers, routine testing requirements for all students, faculty and staff, and this was a really big meeting for both Richards and for the student body to really be able to talk about things that we want to see going on at our University.

AK: Yeah, I would agree with you. I think the Campus President’s Council, which is what Lamar Richards is the head of, is really kind of the hallmark student leadership organization on campus that interacts most highly with the UNC administration. That tension, especially on such prominent and pressing public health issues, such as students being able to feel safe on campus and feel like they're getting the testing that they need to feel safe in class and at home. A lot of students live in communal living, and so it's, I know a concern for a lot of people, not only if they if they feel like they're getting sick, they're also at a high risk of getting their roommates, friends and family sick. The media relations and the UNC Administration has been very vocal that this vaccine mandate can only be mandated by the North Carolina Commission for Public Health under state law. And so, the UNC System and the Chapel Hill administration have no clear plans to instate a vaccine mandate. And while it is good to see that the percent of students, faculty and staff that have attested that they're vaccinated has definitely gone up in the last month, but I think there's a lot of still concerns for campus operations and the way that there's maybe a connection from regard for public safety and, you know, operating the University at kind of this position of near normal education and social and athletic event.

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CS: What are some stories that your reporters, you or other editors here at The Daily Tar Heel are looking into with regards to the future of COVID and the future of Tar Heels on campus.

AK: A lot of what University Desk is looking into right now with my senior writers and my staff writers is you know how students are taking reporting as a means to kind of feel safe on campus, you know, continuing to follow Faculty Executive Committee and their decisions and what they're recommending to the administration. Also looking into the Board of Trustees, both in the way that their power affects the rest of the UNC system and the Chapel Hill community. That especially came to light this summer with the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure case, and how the Board of Trustees initially failed to offer a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist tenure at this University.


CS: Well, thank you so much, Allie, for coming and talking to me about everything that's going on with COVID on campus. And thank you all for listening to our first episode of Heel Talk. We'll see you next week.

This episode was produced by Levi Pitts. Supervising producers were Audio Editor Leo Culp, Multimedia Managing Editor Alex Berenfeld and Editor-in-Chief Praveena Somasundaram.