Faculty question UNC-Chapel Hill's 'damn the torpedoes' strategy for fall semester

Posted August 4, 2021 6:11 a.m. EDT
Updated August 5, 2021 7:58 p.m. EDT

— Faculty leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said Wednesday that they fear a repeat of last year's disastrous fall semester, when a spike in coronavirus infections in the first week prompted an end to in-person undergraduate classes and eventually forced most students to leave campus.

Members of the university's Faculty Executive Committee questioned Provost Robert Blouin about mandating vaccinations, mask and distancing requirements on campus, implementing remote classes and other issues during a 90-minute meeting Wednesday afternoon.

UNC-Chapel Hill has already told students that they need to be vaccinated before fall semester starts or submit to weekly testing. But UNC System leaders say that campuses lack the authority to require vaccinations.

Blouin said requiring vaccinations of tenured faculty and state workers also poses problems, but Diane Juffras, the Albert and Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Term Professor of Public Law and Government at the UNC School of Government, said a vaccination could become a condition of employment at the university. Those who refused without a valid medical or religious exemption, Juffras said, could be fired for misconduct.

UNC Health has already set a Sept. 21 deadline for its workers to provide proof of vaccination or face termination.

Aside from vaccinations, Blouin said masks are the main tool UNC-Chapel Hill has to fight the virus. The campus requires people to wear masks indoors, aside from residence halls.

"If you're vaccinated and if you're wearing a mask, you're pretty protected," Blouin said, noting that the university plans to return to pre-pandemic operations regarding class sizes and configurations.

There are also no plans for moving classes online like last fall, he said.

"Based upon what we currently know and where we currently are with vaccinations and with mask wearing ... I don't see us as moving to remote this fall," he said. "Things could change, so I don't want to totally say that there's not something that could come up, but I don't see it right now."

Faculty pressed him on how the university would handle off-campus parties, including those held by fraternities and sororities, which fueled last fall's spike in infections. They also wanted more than a simple attestation from students that they had been vaccinated.

A professor recently sounded the alarm on Twitter about students who know how to buy fake COVID-19 vaccine cards and one who submitted one to the university.

Blouin said vaccinations and masks would help reduce the likelihood of parties becoming virus super-spreader events.

"One has to admire your optimism," said Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine in the UNC School of Medicine. "But I have to say that the idea that we aren't deeply, deeply engaged in identifying, working out [and] calculating when to stop and why to stop and how to stop [is concerning].

"What I'm hearing you say is, 'Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead. Everything's going to be fine,'" Estroff continued. "It would be helpful ... to know that you all are planning not just for the best but for possible worst-case scenarios, so that we don't have another 'Oh, my God, we got it wrong. Let's go home' kind of thing."

University administrators meet daily with infectious disease experts as they map out plans for the fall, Blouin replied, noting that virus has become part of daily life and everyone must adjust to it.

"Success is really staying out of the hospital. It's not necessarily just simply having a negative COVID test. We're going to have a lot of positive COVID tests," he said. "No matter how hard we would like to do it, we're not putting this virus back into the bat. It's out. It's going to be with us in perpetuity, and we're going to have to learn to live and work with it."

The Faculty Executive Committee drafted a resolution to send to UNC President Peter Hans and the UNC Board of Governors, asking that they provide Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz the authority to require proof of vaccination from students, faculty and staff and to develop stricter mask guidelines.

Within minutes of the committee's adoption of the resolution, UNC System Chief of Staff Norma Houston issued a statement that all campuses in the university system would operate under a "Get Vaccinated or Get Tested Weekly" requirement for students. Hans followd that up Thursday with a memo to chancellors that the same would be expected of all faculty and staff.

"I think it’s reasonable, both for public health and for leadership by example, to ask our faculty and staff to comply with the same protective measures we are asking of our students," Hans said, noting each campus could tailor the details of the requirement to meet its specific needs.

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