Will reopening of NC’s universities in the fall be safe?

As North Carolina into a Phase 2 reopening plan, even as the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing in the state, universities are trying to decide what they’ll be doing this Fall. Will students return? Only some students? Will all classes be online? Only larger classes? How will they keep faculty, staff, and students safe?

In an online Board of Governors meeting, the UNC System’s president, Bill Roper, said he expects a return to campus by students in the fall and they’ll be finalizing guidance to the system’s 17 institutions by the end of the month. According to an email newsletter from IndyWeek, UNC-Chapel Hill may announce their fall plans as early as tomorrow. In a university-wide Zoom call yesterday, the administration announced a mix of instruction, with students wearing masks and in-person class sizes reduced.

Colleges and universities are unique institutions, bringing together a large population from around the country and even internationally in common spaces such as dorms, eating areas, research labs, and libraries. Some have working hospitals and medical clinics attached to them. The impacts of a contagious virus breakout wouldn’t be isolated to the campus - a university is part of the city or town surrounding it, where faculty, staff, and students live and mingle with the larger population. Think about the Tyson chicken processing plant outbreak in Wilkesboro and how that has spread COVID-19 to the surrounding community and across county lines.

It’s a complex issue to sort out. We have a large number of colleges and universities in all parts of the state, many part of the larger UNC system and others that are private secular and religious colleges.

If you aren’t paying attention to this debate and what universities are planning for the fall, you should be.

Debate has gone on among faculty and staff about reopening in the fall, with some pointing out that many faculty and and staff are older and in high-risk groups - universities may find that, even with students returning, some faculty in at-risk groups will be teaching online from home. Because of travel restrictions, at least some students can’t come to campus. Others may take a “gap year” because of the stress or concern from parents. Analysts, looking at surveys of parents and other factors, are predicting that universities could loose 20% of their students in the fall.

Universities are under a big financial pressure to reopen and “return to normal”.

Institutions shifted to online instruction for the spring terms that were interrupted by the pandemic. Students haven’t warmed to the idea of paying full tuition for online classes - one survey showed that 41% of students had a worse view of college as a result of COVID-19. With calls for reduced tuition and some students suing over what they perceive as sub-standard online instruction, universities face a financial crisis exacerbated by expenses associated with the spring shutdowns, shifts to online classes, and the general economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Mitch McConnell floated the idea of eliminating liability for businesses that reopen setting off a lobbying frenzy. (Disney is already planning to force customers, when they make a reservation, to agree not to sue if they become ill from COVID-19 after visiting Disneyland or a Disney hotel.)

Some universities are lobbying Congress for immunity from lawsuits involving deaths or illness resulting from reopening - administrators know full well that reopening will have impacts. The real question facing university leaders is how much they are willing to risk the well being and lives of their employees, faculty, and students - and, in particular, the communities surrounding those institutions - in a quest to stay open, to avoid lawsuits, or to avoid offending gung-ho conservative big donors or political figures ready to “damn the torpedoes” and reopen at any cost.

We’ve already seen how the UNC system’s administration has been subject to politicization by extreme right-wing ideologues with the quasi-illegal ’Silent Sam’ settlement and the attempts by NC House Speaker Tim Moore to grab a cushy administrative job at East Carolina. Right-wing nutcases already see the pandemic as a “hoax” or something not more serious than the flu and have been floating the idea of reopening and sacrificing pandemic victims for the good fo the economy.

Will the UNC administration’s right-wing elements hurl NC’s universities towards an irresponsible “return to normal”, with as many students on campus as possible, in spite of the science, the potential illness and deaths, or the practical matters of how to do so, to look at the financial "bottom line" and appease Trump's reelection narrative?

Unfortunately, I think we’re headed towards the worst of both worlds here - needless death and illness due to reopening and many businesses and institutions that will financially fail regardless of what they do, simply because Federal and state governments aren’t prepared to assist with the economic fallout of COVID-19. This is a crisis that is world-wide and there’s simply no escaping some kind of harm, whatever decisions are made.

Where students do return, even in limited numbers, will administrators and school officials be able to enforce social distancing and safety protocols? Despite the closure of North Carolina’s universities, I’m hearing reports about groups of students, particularly graduate students that live in the surrounding communities, gathering at public spots on campuses and having pick-up basketball or volleyball games or end of year parties with no masks and no social distancing. The same is happening in other states. Whether it’s debating and discussing projects in a coffee shop between classes or in the group food areas, or studying in the campus library, university life is inherently social. Will any amount of prodding and policing keep naturally curious and social young students from inadvertently creating a new outbreak hotspot?

No one in higher education is talking about the other wild card for campuses in the fall - extreme right wing organizations trying to recruit and organize students.

Already, groups like Turning Point USA have been bringing right-wing firebrand speakers to campuses. Turning Point USA tried to promote gun-nut lieutenant governor candidate Mark Robinson at Appalachian State, funded candidates for student government at UNC and Western Carolina. The organization also maintains the Professor Watchlist website, where conservative students submit material about professors at their institution that “promote leftist propaganda”.

The Daily Tarheel outlined some background:

According the press release, Charlie Kirk, the founder and executive director of TPUSA, called his role in student governments “a rather undercover, underground operation” during a 2015 appearance in front of a conservative group. He said he believes that student governments have direct influence over millions in student fee appropriations, and therefore places incredible value in these “victories."

“With all that power and money, TPUSA plans to use student resources to eliminate funding to progressive organizations, block all Boycott, Divestment and Sanction groups and student legislation, start Pro-America week-long events on campus, and fund speakers to spread a message of American Exceptionalism and Free Market ideals on campuses,” said TPUSA in the press release.

Turning Point USA is funded by the same mix of right-wing oligarchs, like the DeVos family, that are pouring money into the so-called #ReOpen protests in North Carolina and other states. And, yes, Turning Point USA is echoing the same rhetoric about the pandemic as these astroturfed nutcases. From the NY Times:

The tweets by Mr. Kirk, 26, who runs Turning Point USA, a conservative student group, hit just the right marks for the president. One tweet accused the World Health Organization of covering up the coronavirus outbreak, and upbraided Democrats for opposing the president’s decision to cut the group’s funding. Another claimed Democrats were appeasing Beijing and not doing enough to help Americans left jobless by the pandemic. A few covered some of the president’s longstanding grievances, such as the conviction of Roger Stone and claims of voter fraud. A well-worn conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden’s dealings with China even made an appearance.

NC’s universities, by returning students to campus in the fall, are playing a risky game, not only with the lives and well-being of their own students, faculty, and staff, but with the surrounding communities as well.

Already, at the nearly empty University of Texas campus, an outbreak has hit 11 custodial workers. Prestigious Cambridge University has already announced they’re moving instruction completely online through summer 2021. Interestingly, the campus-wide Zoom call by UNC-Chapel Hill administrators mentioned that two dorms would be set aside for quarantining sick students.

We have a patchwork of state responses to the pandemic in the US, political provocateurs pushing for large gatherings, and the complete and utter incompetence from the Trump-helmed federal government. Now, universities are looking at the national movement and close quartering of millions of college students this fall.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Another thing to be concerned about....

The Brookings Institution has a study out today noting that Trump-supporting counties are seeing a COVID-19 surge. It shows that the ultra-right's politicization of the pandemic, along with Trump's lies about the disaster, are causing Trump supporters to ignore public health advice.

It seems logical that parents that aren't buying into the political hype from the right may lean more towards having their kid take a break from attending college or insist that they stay home and take courses online, even if the students aren't happy about it.

So, we may wind up, particularly at the UNC system institutions, with a higher Trump-supporting student population that doesn't think the pandemic is a big deal or that any rules universities lay down on social distancing apply to them.

It's a disaster in the making, both for what may happen when students return and for how the 2020 election may play out.

A "WTF?" in UNC-Chapel Hill's plans...

Winston-Salem Journal reporter posted on Twitter a summary of UNC-Chapel Hill's plans for the fall: (bolding mine)

Highlights from today’s announcement include:

  • On the guidance of infectious disease and public health experts, a revised academic calendar with classes beginning on Aug. 10 and final exams being computed Nov. 24 in order to finish before a potential second wave. The University will observe Labor Day and University Day but will eliminate Fall break.
  • Class sizes will be reduced, time between classes will be extended and entrances and exists will be converted for one-way traffic. Some classes may be conducted remotely, with a goal of offering as much flexibility as possible for students and faculty.
  • The entire campus community will be asked to adhere to community standards and public health guidelines to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including physical distancing, wearing face coverings, increased hand washing and frequent cleaning of campus spaces and surfaces.
  • A phased return for faculty and staff. Employees should initially expect staggered work schedules, alternating schedules, reconfigured workstations, remote work and other accommodations to limit density on campus and maximize safety.
  • The University will launch a new initiative called Carolina Away, which will allow up to 1,000 undergraduate students to learn together in high quality, digital sections of key courses in our general education curriculum, participate in small group experiences and engage in learning communities that focus on the impact of COVID-19.

Wait ... on the advice of health experts, they're expecting a "second wave" and possibly contributing to it by bringing students back to campus? And hoping their timing is right to avoid the "second wave"?