Dear Governor Cooper and North Carolina State Senators and Representatives,
As faculty, workers, staff, and students of the University of North Carolina System, we write to you today with an urgent request. On July 29, Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart and Medical Director Dr. Erica Pettigrew sent a remarkably detailed and grave letter of warning to UNC-Chapel Hill leadership regarding the imminent health risks facing not only their campus but also the surrounding communities due to the return of thousands of students to the area without adequate or appropriate planning. That letter and a relevant Chronicle of Higher Education article from August 5, 2020, are appended here.
The UNC System and campus leadership chose to defy the Orange County Health Director’s request that the University go to all online instruction for all courses for the first 5 weeks of classes, and to provide housing on campus only for students with no other options and genuine housing needs (e.g., international students). Since thousands of students began to move back to Chapel Hill on August 3, four distinct cluster outbreaks of Covid-19 in student residences,, have been recorded. Because Covid-19 spreads asymptomatically, and because there is neither adequate nor timely testing for infections, undoubtedly many more students, perhaps in the hundreds, are actually already infected – and we are only in the second week of classes. Indeed, when the UNC-Chapel Hill dashboard was updated today, we learned that in the first week of classes, 130 students and 5 employees tested positive. And now, UNC-Chapel Hill is moving all courses to remote instruction, effective Wednesday, August 19.
Other campuses throughout the UNC System will inevitably report similar outbreaks of Covid-19 arising from the UNC Board of Governor (BOG) decision to compel all UNC System campus chancellors to open their campuses for the Fall 2020 semester to students in residence and face-to-face instruction. Poor students and students of African American, Native, and Latinx descent have been particularly affected on our HBCU and NC Promise School campuses.
The impetuous and ill-planned decision by the UNC BOG to require 240,000 students on 16 UNC System campuses to live and study in crowded conditions in the face of a pandemic endangers not only students, but also thousands of their faculty, staff and other workers on campus, and community members. This decision has created a public health disaster of growing magnitude and is a dark day for the University of North Carolina.
Today, we implore you as the chief executive of the State of North Carolina, and someone vitally concerned for the future of public higher education in our State, to communicate your own concerns and warnings to the UNC BOG in explicit terms, with special regard to North Carolina laws governing public health emergencies, about the public health disaster now spreading across and beyond 16 UNC System campuses. We need to ensure that the UNC Board of Governors immediately close down all UNC campuses to all students except those who have no other place to live (e.g., homeless students, international students), and convert all courses to online only to avoid further infections of students, faculty and staff.
We recognize that you, like all of us, are deeply distressed by the economic harm caused by closing down institutions, but opening up institutions such as UNC campuses without protection or plan, then having to close them down again, because of many infections and deaths, is now an unfortunate necessity. The cause of the problem was the UNC BOG ignoring the early and strong warnings of those faculty, students, and staff member at UNC campuses who had a more accurate appraisal than the BOG members of the dangers of pandemic spread while inviting thousands of young adults to campus environments where they could transmit the virus. Unfortunately our warnings went unheeded, and you must now act.
We ask that you do the responsible thing and mandate the closure of UNC System universities to normal student residence and in-face instruction on campus until such time as students, faculty, and staff can return safely to their work. We speak not only for ourselves, but on behalf of our students, co-workers, families, and neighbors in making this plea. Ultimately it is your decision-making power as our leaders of the State that will matter the most as we move forward together. Thank you for your consideration and leadership.
Letter from Orange County Health Department: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1NqZrCqCSdAv8gqq1CZ4xYPFu2wDR2z81/view
Chronicle of Higher Education article: https://www.chronicle.com/article/its-local-health-department-urged-a-virtual-fall-unc-is-reopening-anyway
Washington Post article on UNC-Chapel Hill’s switch to remote instruction: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/unc-chapel-hill-coronavirus-cluster/2020/08/17/8ebce060-e0ab-11ea-8181-606e603bb1c4_story.html