UNC Tenured Faculty Tell Students to Stay Home Amid COVID Concerns: 'It Is Not Safe for You to Come to Campus'

Tenured faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) told undergraduate students in an open letter not to return to campus this fall because of coronavirus concerns, the latest move in the debate over reopening schools.

"We need to stay safe from Covid-19 by staying at home – and we need you to stay home in order to protect yourselves and your fellow students, your teachers, the many workers who serve you on campus, the residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and your own family members and loved ones," 30 tenured faculty members wrote in a letter published Thursday by The Charlotte Observer.

UNC-CH announced in May that it would begin classes on August 10, with the university offering multiple instruction models for students depending on class size and student preference. Classes may be offered face-to-face, entirely remote or a hybrid model of the two, according to the school's website.

But administrators made these plans for reopening on the assumption that the first wave of coronavirus infections seen in the spring would be over by the time school began, the faculty members wrote in their letter.

"Subsequent events have shown that that was a faulty assumption," they said. "Now the country's oldest public university must not repeat the tragic errors of this summer by reopening too quickly and completely."

A virus is understood to have reached its "second wave" when an outbreak has almost entirely disappeared before returning, or when it changes in severity based on seasonal patterns, The Washington Post reported. Scientists are warning that the world has not yet seen the end of coronavirus's first wave.

"We are still in the first wave," Loren Lipworth, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told the Post. "As we ease up on restrictions, there is always going to be a resurgence in cases. It's not that it's a new wave of the virus."

The UNC-CH faculty members were clear in their stance on current conditions in the U.S., which has seen cases surge throughout the summer in several states: "It is not safe for you to come to campus–to live in dormitories and apartments, to sit in classrooms, and to socialize with your peers in the way that college students usually do."

The signees encouraged everyone who could safely and financially remain at home in the fall to do so, adding that they would be choosing to teach all of their classes online as part of a contribution to this effort.

Erik Gellman, a UNC-CH history professor and one of the letter's signees, told Newsweek that the letter was a last-minute effort to appeal to students and their families, who have largely received positive messaging assuring their safety on campus.

"What we thought we needed to do given the urgency of the situation was to put a letter together that specifically is addressed to undergraduate students. We came to understand that most undergraduate students and their families were not getting mixed messages about reopening," Gellman said. "We wanted to get this message out there to them as faculty to say, 'Please think twice about coming. We really don't think it's safe for you to come back in the fall.'"

The original signees circulated the letter out to other faculty members Friday afternoon and had received 50 additional signatures by Saturday morning, Gellman said.

After the Observer published the letter Thursday, Gellman thought he had noticed a change in messaging from the university. In an email sent to the UNC-CH community Friday and obtained by Newsweek, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he recognized that many students and faculty members had already chosen to learn or work remotely.

"For those Tar Heels choosing to return to campus, this is not going to be a typical Carolina semester, and our campus will look and feel a lot different this fall," Guskiewicz wrote.

Gellman told Newsweek he saw an underlying message.

"If you read between the lines, one interpretation of that is our chancellor saying, 'You know, we totally understand that you decided to stay home and we support you, and if you're going to come here know that it's not going to be a college experience that's going to be pleasurable,'" he said. "That's not saying we're shutting down, we're reversing course, but it's not exactly encouraging students to come back."

In an emailed statement to Newsweek, a UNC-CH spokesperson wrote that the university is continually evaluating its health and safety protocols.

"We all are living and working through challenging, uncertain times, so we understand why our community is concerned. The University has been working on the fall return, putting community standards and guidelines in place to allow Carolina to continue working toward its educational and research missions with the health and safety of our Carolina and local community as the top priority," the spokesperson wrote. "This is a fluid process and we will continue to seek and listen to our community's input."

Bob Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost, wrote to the UNC-CH community July 30 reassuring its 19,000 undergraduate students that proper coronavirus safety measures would be enforced on campus.

"We don't just expect faculty, staff, students and visitors to wear a mask, wait six feet apart, and wash your hands often; it is a condition of being on campus," Blouin wrote in his weekly update message.

The university is developing its own COVID-19 dashboard, which will soon be made available to the public and serve as a source for coronavirus-related data concerning the campus community.

Several faculty members and students, however, do not believe these measures are enough to keep students safe. Gellman told Newsweek that the road map administrators have laid out for the fall semester sets students up to fail.

"I don't think it's fair for this UNC road map to suggest that if students come back to campus and they don't abide by community standards and as a result COVID spread that it's their fault. It's almost setting up students to fail and to blame them."

Aditi Kharod, a rising UNC-CH senior who read the professors' letter, told Newsweek she agrees "completely" with their assertion that classes should be conducted entirely online for the fall.

It's not only the students and faculty members who are at risk of contracting the virus. There is a historic community that borders UNC-CH's campus with a lot of elderly Black residents, she added.

"That's a demographic group that's very susceptible to the effects of COVID," Kharod said. "And so I think not only should we be thinking about the students and the faculty who are of course at risk, but UNC's right in the middle of an entire other community that is also at risk if all of us come back at the same time."

Updated (08/01/20, 5:01 p.m. ET): This article has been updated to include additional information and comments from Erik Gellman and Aditi Kharod.

Updated (08/05/20, 8:36 p.m. ET): This article has been updated to include a comment from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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