On the evening of Aug. 17, leadership at UNC Charlotte sent out an email notice to all students addressing plans for reopening in light of the recent COVID-19 outbreak at UNC Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), which made national headlines after 135 new cases of the coronavirus cropped up on campus during the first week of in-person classes. Many UNC Charlotte students were hoping that like UNC-CH, UNC Charlotte would shift all classes to remote learning. Instead, the email stated that UNC Charlotte would “proceed as planned” with reopening in-person classes, in accordance with directives from the UNC System Board of Governors.
The decision has sparked outrage among UNC Charlotte students, faculty and staff. In an open letter to UNC Charlotte administrators, Student Body President Tahlieah Sampson urged the university to reconsider: “While we understand preserving the freshmen experience and allowing students to get a glimpse of what college is like, we cannot neglect the safety and well being of our students.”
Dick Beekman, a sophomore at UNC Charlotte, was “shocked” by the decision, he said.
“The University, instead of deciding to change course, is staying rigid with the plans in place even when it’s become abundantly clear that they’re not the right plans to protect students, faculty, and staff … Decisions are being made that are ignoring the input of faculty, staff, and students.”
Students originally evacuated the UNC Charlotte campus on March 20, and in May, then-Chancellor Philip DuBois announced the school would start its fall semester on Sept. 7. In July, the UNC System Board of Governors stated the decision to close campuses lay with the Board of Governors and not with individual campuses. According to an Aug. 17 statement from UNC System President Peter Hans, that decision still stands.
“The decision to adapt operations applies to UNC-Chapel Hill only, because no other UNC System institution has reported information, at this time, that would lead to similar modifications … Each campus is different, and I expect situations to evolve differently,” the statement read.
But Beekman, and many others, disagree.
“It’s naïve to think we’ll come out of this situation any differently than Chapel Hill, or ECU [East Carolina University], or NC State,” Beekman said. ECU recently came under fire after students released videos of “superspreader” parties, and NC State reported a new cluster of COVID-19 on Aug. 18 — both within days of students moving in.
When asked why officials at UNC Charlotte believe measures that failed at other universities around North Carolina will work at UNC Charlotte, a spokesperson for the university wrote in an email to Queen City Nerve, “The success of these measures depends on each member of Niner Nation doing their part to protect their health and the health of others … Additionally, it is imperative that students understand the dangers of large gatherings and avoid hosting such events off campus.”
The Aug. 17 notice stated that large social gatherings are “strictly prohibited” by Gov. Roy Cooper, and those found in violation could be prosecuted by law and “held accountable under the Code of Student Responsibility.”
In a statement sent to all UNC System chancellors, UNC System President Peter Hans stated that, though off-campus events posed “the most significant risk,” universities have “little, if any, ability to address off-campus behavior by students” without the aid of law enforcement.
Dr. John Cox, director of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies at UNC Charlotte, recently joined a class-action lawsuit against the entire UNC System demanding an immediate move to remote-only instruction in order to protect UNC workers.
“Many of us knew all along that a re-opening would be a fiasco,” he stated in an email. “We argued, back in May and June, ‘Why not decide now to go 100% remote, give us all more time to make our classes as effective as possible,’ rather than start the semester, lure thousands of students back to town and back onto campus, and then make this decision.
“We know that they are, to a large degree, at the mercy of UNC’s Board of Governors, but that doesn’t excuse everything,” Cox continued. “With a tiny bit of imagination and creativity, administrators at UNC campuses around the state could have defended our interests and safety much more vigorously.”
For Beekman, the finger pointing is just a sign that UNC Charlotte leaders aren’t willing to be accountable for their decisions around the UNC Charlotte reopening.
“For the school to sit here and say, ‘Well, it’s not our fault we’re in this bad situation, it’s the Board of Governors,’ completely ignores the fact that they had months to listen to legitimate student concerns and suggestions on reopening,” said Beekman. “Had they done so… there’s no reason to believe we wouldn’t be in a better situation today.”