University leaders want students back on Triangle campuses; faculty, staff not so eager

Posted June 23, 2020 1:17 p.m. EDT
Updated June 23, 2020 6:27 p.m. EDT

— With less than seven weeks until the scheduled start of classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University, resistance to bringing thousands of students back to campus amid the coronavirus pandemic is growing among faculty and staff of the three schools.

The pandemic forced all three universities to shut down their campuses in March, shifting to online instruction, and to cancel graduation ceremonies and other spring events.

Administrators have set up groups to devise plans to resume in-person classes on Aug. 10, insisting that the health and safety of students, faculty and staff are their top priority.

All three universities have said they will require students to wear masks on campus. They also have condensed their academic calendars, eliminating fall break to cut down on student travel, to complete the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

Duke officials say they plan to test all students living on campus for coronavirus at the start of the semester – many are coming from hotspots like New York, Florida and California.

Despite assurances of safety, faculty members, graduate students who teach and campus workers have filed petitions with UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. State leaders, demanding more online instruction, protective gear for staff and hazard pay.

"We really believe that Duke works because we do that work, and our main demands are for safety in the time of the pandemic, pay and a seat at the table in Duke’s decision-making process to reopen campus," said Chris Huebner, a Ph.D. candidate who co-chairs the Duke Graduate Student Union, one of the groups behind a list of demands for Duke officials.

Huebner said he suffers from chronic respiratory issues and is worried about his personal health.

"Duke administrators need to do a much better job of taking into account the needs and concerns of their workers and their students," he said. "If people don’t feel safe, they shouldn’t be forced to work in those conditions, and they should be provided by the university with either opportunities to teach in some other ways or perform work for pay in some other way to make a living."

Ampson Hagan, a graduate student worker at UNC-Chapel Hill involved with the petition there, notes that young adults, like the students who will be returning to campus, are one of the growing demographics when looking at the spread of coronavirus nationally.

"The idea that people, young people or otherwise, would be sort of 'safe' under UNC’s plan, I feel it’s definitely premature and highly skeptical," Hagan said. "If we take the idea that young people are coming down with the virus at greater rates than before, this plan to reopen under the aegis that undergraduates want the 'true college experience,' I don’t think a pandemic or contracting the coronavirus is anyone’s idea of what true college experience is like."

People off campus also worry about the influx of students who will be heading out to area restaurants and stores.

Raleigh resident Dennis Perry said he doesn't trust college students to wear masks in public or practice social distancing.

"At least for the first couple months or first half [of the semester], I would say be online, and then maybe down the road, maybe gradually phase [in-person classes] in," Perry said.

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