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ECU furloughs total more than 200; more coming

Data provided by ECU shows that more than 200 employees have now been identified for furloughs, and the university is finalizing plans for more.

The university announced on June 11 that it was issuing furloughs to trim about $1 million from a budget deficit of at least $20 million.

ECU interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson said at the time that about 110 employees would see full or partial furloughs but did not identify where they worked. Athletics Director Jon Gilbert said all the employees in his department, more than 130 people, would see partial furloughs.

It was not clear if the athletics furloughs overlapped with the furloughs mentioned by Mitchelson. Data provided by ECU this week offered some clarity.

A total of 50 employees in administration and finance will be furloughed for 90 days starting July 1. Another employee in the division will have a 50 percent furlough during that time.

The employees work in printing and graphics the student store and parking, the university reported.

Another 24 employees in academic affairs will work reduced hours during the 90 days.

In athletics, 142 employees will take five-day furloughs between June 22 and Sept. 22.

Plans for implementing furloughs in the student affairs division are waiting for approval and implementation, said Jamie Smith, assistant director of news services.

“Once those final decisions and employee notifications take place, we can release the number and types of furloughs,” she said.

Revenue losses are related in part to the COVID-19 shutdown, officials said. Some furloughed employees had not been working but were receiving pay.

The financial losses were felt across the university, including the medical and dental schools, Smith said.

“We are still quantifying these losses,” she said. “Housing, dining, and the clinics have all experienced significant losses.”

University officials will know total losses in September once its fiscal year is closed, Smith said.

The current furloughs are expected to save $296,000 in athletics, $189,260 in administration and finance and $191,711 in academic affairs for a total of $676,971.

The furloughs have not affected students enrolled in summer courses, Smith said.

Earlier, outgoing UNC Interim President Bill Roper gave chancellors the authority to propose furloughs for institutional auxiliary and receipt-supported enterprises only, the university announced.

These groups have seen their work completely or partially reduced and their funding sources affected by the coronavirus, the university reported.

Appalachian State University is the only other school in the UNC System to announce furloughs, according to a system office spokesman.

Business NC reported in mid-June that the university was furloughing 106 full-time employees in the athletics department. The plan consisted of most employees working reduced hours and a small number being on continuous furloughs for a shorter period of time, the magazine reported.

Amid pandemic, Rocking Horse Ranch working to recover from a different tragedy

In early March, when states across the country began encountering their first cases of what was then referred to as the novel coronavirus, Rocking Horse Ranch was facing a different kind of mysterious illness. Within 48 hours, it had killed two horses. Less than two weeks later, a third died.

Three months later, the therapeutic riding program, like many nonprofits, is trying to navigate the road to recovery. While there are no clear answers as to what happened, there is a plan to ride again before fall.

“Our loving horses are missing our riders and their families,” a statement on the organization’s website reads.

Many of the approximately 150 riders the program serves through equine-assisted therapy have medical conditions that make them at-risk for contracting COVID-19. Few, if any, have set foot on the ranch since early March when the virus was first reported in North Carolina.

On March 6, Greenville Mobile Equine Services received a call that Cody, one of nine horses at the ranch, was down. The condition of the 18-year-old horse declined quickly, and the decision was made to euthanize him. But shortly after the veterinarian had left, a second horse began exhibiting similar symptoms.

Veterinarian Linda Balot was on call that night. She made the decision to send Beau directly to the School of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State University, where he later died.

Horses have been known to contract coronavirus, Balot said, but the equine virus differs from the one that affects people and is not considered a threat to humans. Equine coronavirus is associated with gastrointestinal symptoms rather than respiratory distress.

When Beau and Cisco, the ranch’s third horse to die, were tested for coronavirus, the results were negative. The deaths of all three horses remain a mystery. Necropsies performed at the vet school on Beau and Cisco have produced little information on what may have killed them.

“Sometimes, you do a lot of testing and you come up negative,” Balot said. “This is unfortunately what pretty much happened with all the tests we were running.”

Balot, who has been practicing as a large-animal vet in eastern North Carolina for more than two decades, said she has never seen a case like this.

“It’s been very frustrating,” she said. “Everybody wants answers. You want to be able to point your finger and say ‘This was the problem,’ so this way you won’t have it again.

“Everything’s been cleaned, sanitized. We’re trying to do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t ever happen again.”

Although one additional horse on the property, leased for use in therapeutic riding, became ill and recovered, the remainder of the herd showed no symptoms. Still, Rocking Horse Ranch tested the horses’ hay and feed and changed their food source.

“They did everything they possibly could to get answers,” Balot said. “Anything that was recommended to them, they did.”

Agricultural Extension agents have examined the pastures to look for potential toxins. Executive Director Wanda Montano said the ranch is preparing the pastures for a chemical burn, plowing and replanting before the horses are allowed to return to graze there.

For Montano, the effort to break ground and plant something new is both literal and figurative. A Charlotte native and East Carolina University graduate, she had never set foot on the almost 30-year-old ranch before her interview. She has no horsemanship experience.

The fourth generation in her family to work at a textile mill, Montano folded blankets in the summer to help pay for her college. Her father, a warehouse manager, coached recreation league basketball and Little League at night and on weekends.

“I grew up watching my father give back to the church, to the community in some way,” Montano said. “That’s really who I am. I like to have an impact on people.”

A former social worker, Montano has three decades of management experience as well as a background in nonprofit boards. She serves on the ECU Board of Visitors and chairs the Health and Human Performance Advancement Council.

“They rewrote the job description when they hired me to make it more business focused, more fundraising, more community outreach, knowing that I could hire the right staff to run the barn,” Montano said. “I have horses to manage and a barn, but at the end of the day, it is a business. It has to be run as a business.”

Like nonprofits across the country, Rocking Horse Ranch is feeling the financial effects of pandemic-related closures. The cancellation of riding lessons and other programs has left the organization with no income since March. In addition, its largest fundraiser of the year, the Derby Dash Bash, was canceled due to the postponement of the Kentucky Derby. Last year’s event raised more than $60,000.

This year, with the Kentucky Derby slated for Labor Day weekend, Rocking Horse Ranch decided not to host a fundraiser. Instead, a different event is being planned for mid-November.

For now, Montano is focusing her attention on preparing the pastures and building up the herd. Following the horses’ deaths, three leased horses were moved from the facility, leaving the organization with one third the number of working horses it once had. In addition, staff changes have left Rocking Horse Ranch with no one to lead its interactive vaulting program.

Montano is looking to build back the herd; she believes six to eight horses are needed to run the program. She and her staff are working with Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International to determine safety procedures for reopening.

When riders return in late summer, one of their earliest lessons is likely to touch on grief. Cody is buried on the property. Cremated remains of Beau and Cisco are preserved in wooden boxes adored with commemorative quotes.

The horses’ photos remain on display in the lobby, along with notes of sympathy from students who heard about their deaths.

“Some of our riders who knew Cody, who knew Beau and Cisco, they need to have some way to come back to the property, I think, once we reopen and go through that (grieving) process,” Montano said. “Right now the only way they’ve been able to reach closure is to write the notes that they’ve sent that we’ve posted.

“So many of our riders have special needs, so for them grief and closure processes are more critical. Especially those on the autism spectrum, it’s just more difficult for them to process,” she said. “I do think the horses in the barn have been grieving as well because they don’t know where their friends went either.”

Montano is spending time getting to know the ranch’s three working horses: Lexi, Happy and Midnight. She plans to take riding lessons so she can better understand what students are experiencing.

“I was ready for another challenge because I don’t feel like I’m ready to retire,” said Montano, who will turn 68 in July. “I have so much still to do.

“My 37-year-old daughter said to me, ‘Mom you like to fix things. Go fix it,’’’ she said, laughing. “I want to get it fixed and I’m going to. I’m absolutely convinced I can make this a better place for our riders, for our volunteers for our staff.”

Rocking Horse Ranch, 1721 Blue Banks Farm Road, is closed for therapeutic riding until later this summer, but it is open by appointment for visits with horses and staff. Call 752-0153. For more information, visit rhrnc.com.

ECU's reopening raises concerns

Beth Bee

A petition signed by more several hundred people employed by East Carolina University raises concerns about the reopening process and seeks a variety safety assurances including that no instructor will be required to teach in person should they be concerned about their health.

The petition was circulated prior to Monday’s release of ECU’s reopening master plan, called Return of Pirate Nation, which sets the university on course to begin in-person classes on Aug. 10. The university moved to remote learning in March at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The reopening plan was developed with input from eight teams, each with a dozen or more representatives from across campus. But faculty who started the petition said the process should have been more inclusive. Many of people who signed the petition did so anonymously. An email to The Daily Reflector with the petition was critical of interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson.

“Although interim Chancellor Mitchelson has expressed an interest in ‘flexibility and compassion,’ early indications point toward a lack of either. In the face of imminent budget concerns ... Mitchelson is moving forward with re-opening campus. He dictated a schedule change to an eight-week block system in May, and did not originally include any faculty, staff or student input in re-opening plans. Under pressure, he later added one faculty member to each committee,” the petition states. “This is seen by many as a significant oversight and neglect of shared governance at the university.”

The petition, which began circulating around June 14, was created a few days prior as a collaboration between faculty members to voice their concerns ahead of the reopening plan’s release, ECU associate geography professor and petition contributor Beth Bee said on Wednesday.

The signers are concerned about what will happen to those who are unwilling or unable to return and what accommodations will be made for staff. Students also are worried about returning, Bee said. She advises several students who are immunocompromised or take care of family members that are immunocompromised, she said.

“This was a collective effort that went beyond myself,” Bee said of the petition. “Several faculty across campus had been discussing since before the spring semester had finished, really, about things to come, and particularly after, I think, concerns were elevated after the interim chancellor announced significant schedule changes that he unilaterally decided.”

ECU’s plan calls for classes to begin on Aug. 10 with social distancing and cleaning measures in place. The 20-page document lists expectations for staff and faculty and requires everyone on campus to wear face coverings and participate in health screenings. It outlines testing and tracing procedures and facility usage. It reserves up to 200 dorm rooms for students with health concerns and a small inventory of rooms off-campus for quarantining or isolation.

Faculty who signed the petition are concerned about face-to-face teaching and want the plan to spell out procedures in greater detail, Bee said. Some faculty members do not have paid leave, forcing them to create multiple backup plans in the event one of their students gets the virus or they get virus, she said.

She said it is not clear if masks will be provided free throughout campus — the plan requires face coverings on campus and says a limited supply of disposable masks will be provided — and said the plan’s language isn’t clear on which measures are recommended versus which are required and how they will be enforced.

“At what moment does the university take responsibility for the care and well being of its employees and students?” she said.

Return of Pirate Nation is “a living document and will be updated as new information becomes available,” the plan says. Bee said petition organizers are hopeful that means there will be more opportunity for modifications. However, the plan also says it is subject to change without notice.

The petition was sent to Mitchelson before a town hall where faculty were able to share their concerns on Wednesday. Bee said more than more than 300 faculty, graduate employees and staff had signed the petition. ECU employs more than 5,000.

It asked ECU to ensure that students and employees follow all guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and the American College Health Association and develop clear procedures to address non-compliance no later than July 7.

It asked ECU to ensure free testing, contacting tracing and isolation is available to students and employees, that budget allocations will provide equipment for online teaching and that weekly public status reports about new cases of COVID-19 will be available.

Mitchelson said in a statement to The Daily Reflector that he is aware there is uncertainty about returning to campus. He said the well-being of the community is the focus of all efforts.

“I appreciate the faculty sharing their concerns and requests,” he said. “I want to know this type of information as we move forward in our planning. Several of the items listed in the petition are already being addressed, and we are taking the others into consideration.”

The university is working on all issues raised in the petition, officials said. A second town hall will be held on July 1 to offer more information and gather further input.

In addition to the petition, the ECU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors passed a resolution in early June that urged Mitchelson to ensure the full campus participation in reopening decisions and charge its pandemic health response team to plan for an eventuality that sickness strikes a significant population of students, faculty and staff.

The resolution also urged Mitchelson to inform the campus of specific protocols adopted for handling concerns for those who meet the criteria of ADA and CDC vulnerable populations. The resolution urged that the Faculty Senate assume primary responsibility for determining institutional policies and practices in terms of the best interests of public health.

AAUP president and history professor Karin Zipf said the ongoing spike in coronavirus cases that started after Memorial Day indicated that a petition needed to be created that was more specific than the resolution. She was a consultant for the petition. She was asked to help draft the petition due to her involvement in the AAUP resolution.

“The petition is really designed to be more specific about what the faculty’s concerns are at a more concrete level, whereas the AAUP resolution was designed to urge the chancellor to include faculty participation in the reopening,” Zipf said.

She said she believes that the Return of Pirate Nation plan does address many of the demands made in the petition. It addresses generally what work can go forward in state phases designed to contain spread. “It’s still somewhat ambiguous, but I really like the acknowledgement that we have state rules that put us in these phases,” Zipf said.

Another campus action intended to shed more light on how the virus is affecting the university is an an independent project by faculty in the departments of sociology, political science and the ECU Center for Survey Research. Sociology professors Bob Edwards and Peter Francia are the principal investigators for a survey of 1,000 ECU faculty and 4,000 students.

Edwards said he thinks the survey could help the university prepare for the fall semester by knowing the behaviors students had been practicing to prevent the spread of the virus. The data will be provided to the entire ECU community but it is difficult to see at what extent it will be used, he said. The results are expected to be available by Aug. 1.

He said at this time nobody knows how many students are worried they may not be able to come back due to COVID-19 concerns. Questions covered living situations before and after spring break, difficulties encountered with online courses, how earnings had changed, computer and internet service, family and work responsibilities, health, social distancing and PPE use, among other topics.

He said he hopes ECU leadership reads the survey and pays attention to it findings.

“I would guess that, in a very general sense, we were motivated to do the survey for probably some of the same reasons that the writers of the petition were motivated to write the petition and put it out but they’re not connected,” Edwards said. “It’s not the same group, they’re not I wouldn’t say, they’re not like officially formally connected in any sense. It’s just they’re both just generally raising or investigating similar questions and concerns.”