Dozens of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty have signed an open letter urging the university to reverse course and offer only remote classes this spring. The university's top spokesperson says the reopening plans could be subject to change until early January.
The letter calls for the university to cancel most in-person classes this spring and to allow only students with special circumstances to remain living on campus, as has been the case for much of the fall semester.
Administrators are planning for about 3,500 students to return to campus housing in January, after widespread COVID-19 outbreaks on campus forced most students to move to remote learning and head home just weeks after they arrived in August. In a typical year, about 9,000 students live on campus.
Hussman School of Journalism Professor Daniel Kreiss signed the faculty letter, after declining to sign a similar petition last summer.
"I was very inclined to give the university's administration the benefit of the doubt heading into fall, and I did," Kreiss said. "However, we were also assured in advance of fall that, to quote the provost, 'We were in a good place,' and it clearly turned out that wasn't the case."
After more than a thousand students tested positive for the virus in August, UNC-Chapel Hill convened a campus and community advisory committee to give input on the university's COVID-19 response.
In a September meeting, UNC-Chapel Hill epidemiologist Dr. Audrey Pettifor advised the committee that "for any reopening plan to be successful" viral load in the community would need to be low.
Kreiss said that advice prompted him to sign the letter calling for a reconsideration of spring plans, given that statewide COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are near all-time highs.
"It just seems to me that conditions on the ground have now dramatically changed from where we were, in frankly even September, and the plan has not been updated accordingly," Kreiss said.
In an email, UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor of Communications Joel Curran responded to the faculty letter by pointing to new precautions the university is taking, including mandatory entry and surveillance testing. Fewer students will be allowed to live in dorms than in August and the university is increasing its number of quarantine rooms. About 80 percent of spring classes will be offered online.
Curran said the university is watching statewide trends and any adjustments to its spring plans could be made no later than Jan. 9. That's 10 days before classes start and shortly before residential students are expected to move in.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that UNC Chapel Hill is expecting to house 3,500 students in residential dorms this spring semester, which represents less than 40 percent capacity.