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UNC faculty systemwide raise reopening concerns

Almost 3,000 faculty, staff, students, parents and community members across the UNC System have signed a petition urging system leaders and administration to postpone in-person classes at all campuses to be more transparent with reopening plans, organizers said.

A letter alerting chancellors and provosts systemwide to the petition was signed July 7 by tenured faculty at N.C. State University, UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University, East Carolina University, UNC Wilmington, Appalachian State University, UNC Asheville, Western Carolina University, Fayetteville State University and UNC Charlotte. The letter said a petition would seek support from staff and students in addition to more faculty.

The petition calls for the UNC System to default to online courses with the exception of in-person classes to protect international students from deportation and research classes. It also calls for increased participation of faculty, staff and students in decision-making and the continued employment of campus workers. An updated letter with a copy of the petition will be sent to the UNC Board of Governors at their meeting today and Thursday.

The petition comes as UNC Board Chairman Randy Ramsey has asked school administrators to prepare for budget cuts between 25-50 percent and as most system schools are gearing up for the return of students — ECU is opening its residence halls for families to drop off student belongings today.

ECU faculty member Karin Zipf, president of the university’s American Association of University Professors chapter, said about 30 faculty members agreed a statement was needed urgently. Petitions regarding reopening were circulating at Appalachian, UNC Chapel Hill, NCSU and ECU, she said.

The petition calls for continued employment as ECU and Appalachian have already furloughed employees while other campuses have not, Zipf said. “It’s also interesting to see that sometimes the situations on different campuses are a little bit different, but we’re all afraid of the main, No. 1 thing, and that is the UNC System is not really doing anything to systematically ensure our safety.”

Zipf said she has seen her classes gain more students as they move online. Only 12 students were registered for her fall American History course when it was face to face, now that it has moved online 72 students are registered.

“I think we were a little bit taken aback that the feelings about this reopening is shared across the board — it’s not where student’s are all anxious to come back and start partying, maybe there are some of those, but that is not shared among all students at all,” Zipf said.

The petition was posted by NCSU English professor Cat Warren. She said the petition came out of concerns that had been expressed among faculty at NCSU and UNC Chapel Hill due to North Carolina’s COVID case count increasing.

Many staff members, contingent faculty and non-tenured professors didn’t want to sign the letter due to fears over their jobs, she said. The petition allows people to sign anonymously with comments. It has been signed by students, parents and community members who are concerned about universities across the system reopening.

“I would say it’s highly unusual that faculty across the system get together, not all faculty, obviously, but enough of us get together to say we see a problem here,” Warren said. “And it’s a problem that has enough commonality, even though outbreaks happen in different places at different times, every single campus is worried.”

She said many people think that schools reopening will make things feel like they’re going back to normal. She said it’s wishful thinking to believe students will have a traditional university experience because many businesses around campus will remain closed and students will be socially distanced in the classroom.

Warren said she worried about the finances of the university, but students and families will be upset if system school have to reverse course and send students home like they did in March.

“People are going to be I think resentful of university’s waiting until the last minute to cancel once money for dorms has come in and that feels wrong as well,” Warren said.

A similar petition circulated at ECU earlier this month and directed at local administrators received more than 310 signatures. ECU professor Beth Bee, an organizer, said she got involved with the UNC petition because the concerns of faculty and students deserved a scaled-up, collective response.

“There are concerns that are systemwide, every campus is doing things a little bit differently, as some of these things are decisions made by chancellors and provost other things are made by the UNC System itself,” Bee said.

Professors said the announcement by BOG Chairman Ramsey last week heightened concerns.

Ramsey asked chancellors at all 17 campuses to prepare for campuses closing again in the fall due to COVID-19 by creating a plan to reduce their budget between 25-50 percent in the event classes all have to go online.

If classes have to go online the university will have to implement their budget plan. Bee said she was disappointed by Ramsey’s announcement but not surprised.

“Even though it’s planning, so it’s not an immediate cut, either way I will say it is frightening,” Bee said.

Volunteers needed for COVID-19 survey

Learning how prevalent COVID-19 is in Pitt County is the overarching goal of a survey ECU is conducting in conjunction with the state, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Community Prevention and COVID-19 Testing study known as ComPACT needs participants to answer an online survey and a smaller group that will undertake monthly testings to track the course of the disease.

The online survey, compactstudy.ecu.edu, launched on June 29 and is expected to continue through mid-August, said Aaron Kipp, an epidemiologist and assistant professor with the Brody School of Medicine Department of Public Health.

From the larger group, a small cohort of 375 individuals will be asked to join a study that will require nasal swabs and blood tests.

“The more residents who participate the more complete our understanding will be,” Kipp said. “Our goal is to have a survey that reflects the experiences of everyone in Pitt County.”

The goal is to get a large cross-section of Pitt County residents, individuals who have been healthy since the disease was first diagnosed in North Carolina, individuals who thought they may have been infected but were never tested, individuals who received a lab confirmed diagnoses and individuals who fall somewhere in between.

In April, the public health faculty at ECU joined with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to collaborate on a statewide community prevalence study. ECU is focusing on Pitt County while Duke and UNC are focusing on other communities using participants in surveys they already had underway, Kipp said.

The online phase of the survey is examining the social and economic impact of the stay-at-home measures. It’s also looking at adherence to the safety measures and underlying medical conditions that may be risks for infection.

The Pitt County phase of the study has three main questions:

  • To what extent are COVID-19 prevention measures being followed?
  • How common are new cases of COVID-19 infection, including those that show no symptoms?
  • What proportion of individuals show evidence of prior infection with COVID-19?

Individuals 18 years old and older who have lived in Pitt County since March 1 are eligible to participate.

The online survey will take about 20 minutes to complete, Kipp said, and asks questions about social distancing behaviors, economic impacts, wearing a face mask and other health factors that individuals may have.

Participants can register for a drawing for one of 10 $100 gift cards to either Amazon or Walmart.

Individuals also have the option to sign up for an additional study that is scheduled to begin in August and continue through April.

Selected individuals will be asked to complete a survey every couple of weeks and undergo a nasal swab, Kipp said. Blood samples will be collected once a month for antibody testing.

The testing will create a complete picture of what current and past infections looked like and what portion of people are asymptomatic but potentially infectious, he said.

“This is an opportunity for us to hear from people who have had different experiences with COVID-19,” Kipp said. “Our results are only as good as the information we collect.”

Health director: Learn to live with virus safely

Pitt County’s public health director on Tuesday issued an open letter that provided direction for not only “getting past the virus, but learning to live with it safely.”

The statement from Dr. John Silvernail came as infection rates continue on an upward path locally and across the state, with North Carolina seeing another high in hospitalizations and the state’s largest school district, Wake County, announcing it would hold all classes online for the first semester.

Silvernail said the county was in its ninth two-week incubation cycle since the first case of COVID-19 was identified locally on March 19.

“I know this has been a long time for you and your families and I wish I could tell you it will all be over soon, but I cannot. COVID-19 will likely be with us for a long time to come, so for the foreseeable future, it may not be about getting past it, but about learning to live with it safely.”

The letter said county has fared well through the pandemic so far because residents have followed precautions. It asked residents to continue to stay home if they are sick, wear face coverings, avoid crowds and keep 6 feet away from others and to wash their hands frequently.

Silvernail also asked residents to work with contact tracers trying to identify people who may have been exposed. Calls from Pitt County Health Department will usually come from the main telephone number, 252-902-2300, but other groups are assisting, he said.

“If you are exposed to someone with COVID-19, please self-quarantine,” Silvernail said. “If directed to do so by public health, please do so. While I can issue a legally binding quarantine order, I would prefer not to. Please cooperate with us in these efforts.”

Individuals known, or strongly suspected of having COVID-19, must be isolated, he said.

He said residents should socialize responsibly. “We are all missing human contact, and with warm weather here, there is a temptation to have private parties. I would ask that you think long and hard about this. COVID-19 needs close person to person contact to efficiently spread. We have seen examples of this even in small gatherings. Please, if you host a gathering, make provisions for social distancing.”

He said the health department will continue to operate its COVID-19 hotline (252-902-2300) to answer questions and provide guidance, and a testing program started last week already has provided tests for nearly 1,600 people.

“Thank you for all you have done to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in Pitt County,” Silvernail said. “I know this has been a long haul, and there is still a long haul in front of us, but we will get to the other side of this eventually.”

The comments came as the state reported another record-high number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital at 1,179, narrowly topping the previous daily record set last week. The number of positive cases in the state since the pandemic began is nearing 103,000, with about 1,670 virus-related deaths, according to state Department of Health and Human Services data.

In Pitt County, 24 new case were reported on Tuesday, bringing the total to 1,239 since March, with 10 deaths and 883 estimated recoveries.

Pitt County Schools officials on Monday announced that they would begin partial in-person classes for students beginning on Aug. 17. Officials also are allowing parents concerned about the virus’ spread to choose remote learning options.

The school board for the Wake County system, which has more than 160,000 students, on Tuesday unanimously approved a schedule different from the one it approved three weeks ago, according to the Associated Press.

Board members had earlier committed to a rotational plan in which students would return by receiving in-person teaching one week out of every three.

Superintendent Cathy Moore said her staff’s recommendation had changed as coronavirus hospitalizations and the percentage of positive cases have increased, and with Gov. Roy Cooper’s K-12 announcement last week. He said that while public schools could hold in-person instruction provided everyone wears face coverings and classrooms hold fewer students, districts also could decide to conduct all instruction online.

The Cumberland County school board also voted Tuesday to operate remotely through at least Sept. 25. The Durham County, Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro systems already decided to keep buildings shuttered when classes resume Aug. 17.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, No. 2 in system population statewide, agreed last week that it will have in-person orientation during the first two weeks, followed by online instruction for the immediate future.

While Cooper has said he’s been aiming to get students back in classrooms this fall, the governor said Tuesday he saw no reason to alter his directive in light of decisions by the largest districts.

“We believe that we’re in good shape where we are. We want those local school districts to make the best decisions that they can for those children,” Cooper told reporters. “There’s no easy answer to all of this but I do think we have a good plan in place.”

Cooper also announced on Tuesday that over 900,000 face masks and other supplies were being shipped this week to cooperative extension offices in 31 counties for distribution to agricultural workers. Many farm workers live in close conditions, increasing their risk for the virus, DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said.

“Some of these supplies have been difficult for farmers to source as demand has exceeded supply. I am grateful that farm workers and farmers have been prioritized for these much-needed materials,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a news release.

Cohen said North Carolina’s case trends show “this pandemic remains a simmer, not a boil” in the state and that wearing face masks in public places remain critical to prevent them from getting out of control. Cooper, who issued a statewide mask requirement almost four weeks ago, had stern words for store patrons who won’t comply.

“Either wear one or don’t go in the store,” he said. ”The refusal to wear a mask is selfish. It infringes on the life and liberty of everyone else in the store.”