Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Deep Dive: Emails show how UNCW leaders confronted pandemic challenges in semester’s pivotal early weeks

Records offer a glimpse into university deliberations, including conversations on the proper way to report case clusters, updates from county, state and national partners, and some background on substantial operational changes in September.

In late August and early September, UNCW leaders tirelessly worked to minimize the public health risks of a returning student body. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — Now past the midpoint of fall semester, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington has settled into a groove. With cautious optimism, UNCW maintains today it is poised to finish this semester — and by extension the academic year — free of setbacks that would force a profound alteration of the game plan.

Substantial Covid-19 infections within the UNCW community drew the attention of local and state health officials on multiple occasions, and in key moments the university made touch-and-go decisions, ultimately yielding a decline in the average daily positive case count.

Port City Daily filed a public records request for emails sent between select senior administrators during the formative early weeks of the semester. The records paint a picture of how university leaders grappled with a new reality: operating an institution of higher education during a global pandemic. 

Before classes began, UNCW strategized on how to safely welcome back the student body, and received a guiding hand from officials at the University of North Carolina System, which oversees all 16 public universities in the state.

Cases spiked following the initial return of students to campus, with roughly 20 Covid-19 diagnoses per day on average through the first week of September. This prompted the New Hanover County Health Department to increasingly scrutinize UNCW’s state of affairs, a relationship that both parties refer to as a conducive partnership. 

The pandemic made it necessary for universities to expand their understanding of the Clery Act, a prominent federal policy that originally pertained to crime reporting, to encompass Covid-19 emergency disclosures. In practice, this development has manifested in the notifications of “clusters.” Though, due to the state system’s perceived lack of specific guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, UNCW leaders held multiple conversations in an attempt to nail down the preferred outreach methods for these notices.

The emails shed light, though not entirely, on how UNCW settled on the decision to “de-densify” campus in early September, when concerning case numbers turned heads among health department leaders at the county level. This story quotes administrators’ email correspondences from the records provided to Port City Daily.

‘The most significant risk’ 

On Aug. 18, the eve of UNCW’s first day of class, UNC System President Peter Hans sent a memo to all his chancellors, titled “Local Enforcement of Public Health Standards.” He urged universities to ensure their students complied with public health guidelines, specifically Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order that limited gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. 

“Off-campus gatherings by students pose the most significant risk to your residential communities and your university’s ability to continue in-person classes,” Hans wrote. 

The mitigation strategy, he said, would involve collaboration with bars, restaurants and off-campus housing managers, and an active relationship with local law enforcement. While talking to reporters after a UNC Board of Governors meeting Friday, Hans said there is no record statewide of any infections traceable to classrooms.

“As you know, universities have little, if any, ability to address off-campus behavior by students unless local authorities act decisively to enforce the law,” the memo noted. “Accordingly, please make clear your expectation that local law enforcement agencies and health departments will exercise their responsibility to enforce the law with respect to health standards and the Executive Order and issue citations to those individuals and organizations that are in violation. Their cooperation is essential.” 

UNCW would spring into action soon after, sending a letter jointly signed by Chancellor Jose Sartarelli and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo to a host of popular off-campus housing complexes, which urged the properties to enforce the governor’s executive order. 

The UNCW Police Department bolstered an existing partnership with the Wilmington Police Department. When students are involved, WPD often forwards reports of mass gatherings in campus-adjacent neighborhoods to university officials. “Any UNCW student cited for a 10/25 [mass gathering] Covid infraction, if found in violation, will be placed on disciplinary probation by my office,” UNCW Dean of Students Mike Walker wrote on Aug. 24. The university and WPD have previously said citations are a last resort, normally reserved for repeat offenders. A heightened police presence, referred to as “party patrol,” was slated for at least the first four weekends of the semester but was soon extended indeterminately.

Cases start to surge

UNC-Chapel Hill announced on Aug. 17 that classes were moving online-only for the remainder of the semester. East Carolina University followed suit on Aug. 23, and UNC-Charlotte announced on the same day it would hold classes digitally through at least Oct. 1. 

“Are we going to issue any statement about ECU UNCC and that we are staying on course,” Brian Victor, interim vice chancellor of student affairs, asked in an Aug. 23 email. 

“There is word spreading about positive cases in Pelican [Hall],” he added.

Andrea Weaver, UNCW’s interim chief communication officer, responded: “I am reluctant to release a ‘we are staying the course’ message tonight if there’s a better than average chance that the numbers may not support that approach later this week.” 

Weaver asked Victor if it was possible to “get fully through the weekend and address rumors, concerns, dashboard updates, etc tomorrow once we have a more clear picture of the numbers?”

“Will there be a big jump today from the current numbers? I am gathering yes,” Weaver later added. “That may prompt the watchdogs on social media to start questioning things tonight. Just want us to be ready for that!” 

A surge in positive Covid-19 cases on campus began four days later on Aug. 27, with 20 new student cases reported that day. Also that day, UNCW announced its first two Covid-19 clusters — collections of at least five cases linked by proximity and timespan — at Pelican Hall and Graham-Hewlett Hall. 

‘I would prefer to wait’ 

Cornerstone Hall was deemed the site of a Covid-19 cluster on Aug. 31. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

“We have reached a cluster in Cornerstone [Hall],” Katrin Wesner-Harts, interim associate vice chancellor for student affairs, wrote in an email on Aug. 31. “There is one other area that is close — we will receive more test results around 1pm. Can we wait and do a release later today so that we can capture as much data as possible?”

Wesner-Harts, who oversees many of the various health and testing operations on campus, alerted other administrators to the cluster of cases in Cornerstone, the university’s fourth, at 10:35 a.m.  

Weaver responded, “I would prefer to wait if that is OK with others. I noticed that our sister institutions batched some of their notifications in the past, and we did so last week with our first two.” 

Following these two initial emails, UNCW’s general counsel sent an email in the same thread, as did the director of Title IX and Clery compliance. Both emails are completely redacted. 

The Clery Act, passed in 1990, is a federal statute that requires universities to be transparent in campus crime policy and statistics. The law also compels universities to alert the community to immediate threats to health and safety. Universities are not bound by law to provide ongoing updates on the novel coronavirus and its impact on campuses; rather, they must alert the community to immediate threats that arise from infectious disease. Clusters of Covid-19 cases are commonly understood as intense safety threats.

A message that follows the redacted email indicates that Amber Resetar, the Clery compliance director, reached out to some state-level authority on the topic of cluster notifications. 

“Thanks for checking with State Amber, would be interested to know how they’ve handled repeated cluster notifications,” chief of staff Bradley Ballou wrote. 

Later in the afternoon, Resetar checked in to ask if enough information had been gathered for an emergency notification update. “I know we had confirmation of Cornerstone but were waiting to see if another cluster emerged,” she wrote. “If we could get confirmation of that and get the email out, that’d be great.” 

Weaver circulated a draft announcement at 4:45 p.m., six hours following the confirmation of the Cornerstone cluster.

“Going out via email this time from Blackboard Connect,” Weaver wrote. “Text not included.” 

David Donaldson, UNCW’s chief of police, then asked for clarification on the means of outreach. Students and employees received the three prior cluster announcements via text, according to the university.

“I just picked up that it won’t go out by text. Is this agreed on and adopted format moving forward, email only thru Blackboard?” Donaldson asked.

Resetar, the Clery compliance director, wrote: “Chief and I just spoke. I missed the call yesterday so I’m not sure what was discussed regarding the email and not text, but if we can add the text back, we’d like to do that. We have staff on campus, particularly facilities and housekeeping that don’t have access to email while they work.”

Weaver then responded with a draft text message, and said it would not be a problem to restock text messages in the list of cluster reporting methods. The message to the student community was sent out shortly after 5 p.m. 

The next day, Weaver followed up to inform other administrators: “I am hearing some input from colleagues at other universities about how they are interpreting the System guidance re: Clery notifications for COVID.” She added she would like to discuss the matter further with the group via Zoom.

‘Some not-so-thrilling news’ 

A few days earlier, on Aug. 28, UNC-Chapel Hill announced it would no longer utilize its emergency notification service, “Alert Carolina,” for the purposes of making students and the community aware of Covid-19 clusters on campus. Moving forward, UNC-CH would share this information on its website and social media handles, according to a message from the university. 

With reference to this announcement, Edward Purchase, the Clery Act training coordinator for the UNC System, sent an email on Sept. 3 to administrators at various universities throughout the state. 

“I have some not-so-thrilling news. It would appear the Department of Ed is not intending to issue revised COVID-19 guidance,” Purchase wrote. He noted new existing Covid-19 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education mostly pertained to matters of financial aid.

“In the absence of formal, codified guidance from ED, I wanted to share with you a statement our friends at UNC Chapel Hill released last Friday,” Purchase wrote. “I’m sharing it with you in the hopes it may assist you/your campus come to a similar decision. Keeping in mind UNC Chapel Hill’s unique standing with ED at this time, it is a safe assumption that any foot-forward decision related to Clery has been betted internally and externally and should be considered safely compliant.”

The reference to UNC’s “unique standing with ED” is likely an allusion to a $1.5 million fine levied on UNC last year, stemming from a multitude of Clery Act violations. In the wake of the charges, UNC enlisted a campus safety consulting firm to bolster its training measures, reporting methods and crime prevention policies, all relevant to Clery. 

Resetar forwarded Purchase’s message, which indicated that UNC’s call to nix Alert Carolina as a platform for cluster reports had been substantially vetted to a group of UNCW administrators. 

Weaver responded, “I am open to a conversation whenever we want to have it.” 

She added UNCW already had pinned a link to its Covid-19 dashboard on the official university Facebook page, which also encouraged those involved with the community to sign up for alert text messages

“Overall reaction this morning to the pinned post has been mixed,” Weaver wrote. “With some comments thanking the university for the transparency and information and others criticizing the university for perceived lack of transparency and information.”

As he had before, Donaldson, the university police chief, seemed reluctant to a train of thought that had potential to diminish the ways UNCW would get the message out.

“Does this move us towards considering not continuing emails/texts for clusters?” he wrote. 

“I don’t think at this point I’d be comfortable with that,” Resetar added. “I think if we de-densify campus we could reconsider, but for now, I think we should stick with texts and email.” 

Weaver replied with her approval. “I am good with keeping the texts/emails at this point as well.”

In a statement Friday to Port City Daily, Weaver said, “Text messages and emails were used for each cluster notification. Phone calls were discontinued after the first notification.”

‘Regardless of outbreaks, college students should be kept on campuses’ 

Officials with the New Hanover County Health Department were keeping a close eye on UNCW throughout the month of August, when case numbers among younger county residents were trending upward.

“After following the trend for about seven days and seeing it continue to increase, Public Health reached out to UNCW going into the Labor Day weekend to have a conversation about more directive action focused on limiting spread of COVID-19,” a county spokesperson said in a statement. 

Ahead of Labor Day weekend, an official at the UNC System compiled notes from a meeting of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Friday, Sept. 4. The notes, collected by Elizabeth Morra, vice president of UNC System federal relations, were forwarded to key administrators at UNCW. 

“The main message: Regardless of outbreaks, college students should be kept on campuses,” Morra wrote. 

Morra quoted Vice President Mike Pence as saying, “Regardless of where you are in [the] reopening process, we want you to have best counsel consistent with CDC guidelines and not send kids home.” 

In an email sent later that same day to top-level UNCW administrators, with a subject line of “confidential,” Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Brian Victor wrote, “Katrin Wesner just took a call from Phillip Tarte of our NH County Health Department.”

“While the NH County number of COVID positives are going down, the number of positive UNCW students both off and on campus are now driving that trend in the wrong direction,” Victor wrote.

On Sept. 10, the total number of Covid-infected 18-24 year olds in New Hanover County eclipsed the number of local 25-49 year olds who had contracted the virus. Currently, the two demographics are neck and neck, with 25-49 year olds accounting for about .3% more cases than their younger counterparts, at the time of publication.

Victor, Chancellor Sartarelli and Wesner-Harts would speak again with Phillip Tarte, the county health department director, the next morning, which was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Sartarelli would also be in talks with UNC System President Peter Hans, Victor wrote. 

“Phillip is very appreciative of our relationship with the health department and in deference to that he wants us to coordinate with him to agree on sending students home from campus,” Victor wrote. “Because of our strong partnership he will not send us an official directive (like occurred at Chapel Hill) if we can agree to a plan.” 

Victor told the group a meeting over the weekend could be necessary, and urged those included in the email to keep the information confidential, “until we have more clear direction from Chancellor Sartarelli.”

‘A kind of prisoner’s dilemma outcome’ 

Over the course of Labor Day weekend, UNCW created a plan it believed would satisfy all parties: Asking freshman roommate pairs in campus housing to convert their rooms into singles, and arranging for one of the roommates to move to an open single-occupancy room. Some faculty said they were blindsided by the policy. Many first heard whispers of it on Facebook over the weekend, and then in an article from The Seahawk.

A draft version of the policy, sent to administrators by interim chief communications officer Weaver, read in part: “In addition, if neither student wants to move, then they may both be asked to move home, and both will receive pro-rated refunds.” 

Following Weaver’s message, UNCW’s general counsel responded, and Weaver replied. Both messages are redacted in emails provided to Port City Daily. 

UNCW Provost James Winebrake then commended Weaver on the draft message, which administrators hoped to disseminate quickly that morning. Winebrake suggested some language be toned town, specifically a scenario in which two students who don’t want to leave are both asked to go home.

“Even though we use ‘may’ in the sentence, this reads as a kind of prisoner’s dilemma outcome — which might be the intention (i.e., figure it out or you both have to leave),” Winebrake wrote. “But it begs the obvious question: why would we send both home and lose that space if they both want to stay?”

The sentence Winebrake took issue with was not included in the public announcement.

“If there are few cases, then perhaps as we discussed this morning we may need to circle up with the health department and see if they are ok with the few doubles that remain,” Victor added.

Relocating students were told they could return to live with their parents, but could not pursue private off-campus housing. In the official announcement, this specific point is billed as a recommendation of the county health department. In the draft sent by Weaver, the health department isn’t mentioned in the sentence about barring relocating students from pursuing off-campus housing.

When asked about the county health department’s involvement in the policy crafting, a county spokesperson said, “The university’s decision to move students to single rooms was the proposed action by UNCW officials. It was not a request or a mandate from Public Health, however the decision was supported by Public Health.” 

On Sept. 11, county communications officials forwarded Weaver written answers they had drafted in response to an inquiry from the StarNews.

In response to the StarNews, a county communications official wrote a message nearly identical to the one provided to Port City Daily this week: “The university’s recent decision to move students to single rooms was the proposed action by UNCW officials. It was not a request or a mandate from Public Health.” 

Weaver, in responding to these draft answers from county officials, returned the message with the word “request” highlighted and crossed out in the relevant sentence. 

“The head of our student affairs program requested this small edit, highlighted below, just to emphasize that no ‘mandate’ was issued,” Weaver wrote.

When asked if the health department has ever made suggestions or requests to the university in the realm of pandemic-era campus operations, a county spokesperson said in a written statement that health officials “provided guidance and consultation” in the development of UNCW’s reopening plans. 

“Public Health’s consultation has involved, and continues to include, helping UNCW with a flexible plan, including mitigation options, based on data and trends,” she said. 

Chancellor Jose Sartarelli walks through Alderman Hall at UNCW on a Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

Following review of these emails, Port City Daily asked specific questions to Andrea Weaver, David Donaldson, James Winebrake and Katrin Wesner-Harts, regarding statements they made in various correspondences. In response, Weaver sent the following statement:

The university, like the entire country, continues to respond to a difficult and ever-changing environment caused by the pandemic. UNCW follows the principles outlined in “Best for the Nest: A Guide for Returning to Campus,” adhering to national, state, and local health and safety requirements.  

UNCW is focused on our mission to educate students, using in-person, hybrid and online options to provide maximum flexibility, while also keeping the campus community safe. To support physical distancing measures, many employees have been and will continue to work remotely. They use email and digital platforms to communicate, evaluate options, explore strategies (which includes considering approaches used at other universities), and enact solutions tailored to UNCW’s specific circumstances. The university’s faculty and staff are providing students with a meaningful and rewarding learning experience this fall while also preparing for the spring semester. UNCW is very proud of their dedication and service to our campus and the community.” 

Reached in the halls of an administrative building Friday, Chancellor Sartarelli declined an interview.

Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at preston@localdailymedia.com

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