Education

UNC-CH faculty, staff balk at returning to campus in August

Posted May 27, 2020 6:20 p.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2020 7:32 p.m. EDT

— Some faculty and staff of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say they don't support plans to reopen campus in August, calling it irresponsible and dangerous.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced plans last week to bring students back to campus for the 2020-21 school year after the final two months of this year had to be handled remotely when the campus closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Students have the option of deciding whether they want to take classes online or in person during the fall semester, but faculty and staff say they aren't sure they will have that option, and they worry about safety.

"Personally, I think my initial reaction was fearful for myself and for other members of the UNC community, and then I think also a little bit ashamed, frankly," said Michael Palm, an associate professor of media and technology studies. "I think we’re introducing far greater risk into the campus community and into the surrounding communities by inviting thousands of students from across the state and across the country to return to campus and to gather in confined spaces like classrooms and dorms and dining halls."

Palm said he plans to teach all of his classes online this fall, adding that he's not alone.

"I think most faculty are unwilling to return to campus," he said. "Under the circumstances, it seems foolish and irresponsible and short-sighted to return to the classroom before we have a firmer grasp of the risks of what it would mean to bring thousands of students back to campus."

Graduate students who work as teaching assistants said they would like to be earn hazard pay if they have to work closely with students on campus.

"UNC administration has mentioned that they care about graduate student workers. In addition to them saying that, we’re going to have to see actual, tangible things that they do to protect us," said Joseph Richards, a doctoral student in the Department of Communication.

"I don’t really feel like I have the option – and I feel like other low-paid employees on campus, like the custodial staff, the cafeteria staff, other graduate students, really low-paid workers who don’t have the financial security – to not come to work," said Jennifer Standish, a doctoral student in history.

"I really hope that the university can be responsible and take the leadership it needs to to not force that to happen," Standish added. "I just don’t think that it can be done safely."

Palm also leads the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and he said the group plans to send a letter this week to UNC-Chapel Hill officials expressing its concerns.

"There has been frustration with a lack of transparency and a lack of faculty involvement with the decision-making about what are literally life-and-death decisions," he said.

UNC-Chapel Hill administrators said they did involve students, staff and faculty members in developing its plan for the fall semester.

"We are prioritizing health and safety at every step of the way, and we will provide as much flexibility as possible to meet individual needs," spokeswoman Kate Maroney said in a statement.

Officials have said there is a lot of flexibility in the plan for the fall – Guskiewicz has called it "off ramps" on the roadmap to returning – and they said they will continue to seek counsel from public health experts as they refine it.

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