WILMINGTON — After late August reports identified Covid-19 clusters in residence halls at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, multiple professors who held classes in those dorms asked administrators to move the classes elsewhere, according to emails provided to Port City Daily in a public records request.
It’s not immediately clear whether this request was ever honored.
RELATED: Deep Dive: Emails show how UNCW leaders confronted pandemic challenges in semester’s pivotal early weeks
“University College has begun to hear from instructors and students who are taking classes located inside some of the residence halls that they are concerned about the safety of those locations given the clusters that have occurred,” associate provost Andy Mauk wrote in a Sept. 1 email to other administrators. “There is a request to relocate courses from those spaces to alternative spaces on campus.”
Mauk asked campus leaders how to proceed. “Should we relocate out of all the residence halls? If so what would be the trigger point for shutting down other academic space on campus due to the virus.”
The housing director, Peter Groenendyk, said students were still living in the dorms and his staff continued to operate there.
“Allowing others to not work in the locations (because it is perceived as not safe) sends a problematic message, and can’t possibly enhance safety as the same students will be in the classrooms interacting with the faculty,” Groenendyk responded.
Katrin Wesner-Harts, who oversees testing and medical services, responded that, after an assessment, it appeared courses at the dorms could continue under the status quo.
“At this point we believe they can stay in those classrooms,” she wrote. “We understand this is a particularly stressful time for everyone, and UNI classes are even more important now than ever to help students transition to campus. If we can help at all please let us know.”
University College is a branch of the undergraduate studies department that includes a first-year seminar course, called UNI 101, taken by new students at UNCW. The course overviews college experience fundamentals and university resources.
On the email chain, the director of the college said the department wanted to prioritize the relocation of three classes in Cornerstone Hall, as well as one class in Graham Hewlett Hall.
She added some statistics on which students were receiving instruction in the first-year dorms. Half of the first year seminar classes included students, “who live in the building that they have class,” though for classes in Cornerstone and Graham, “students come from other buildings.”
A statement from the university last month, attributed to Provost James Winebrake, noted, “Faculty can request a modality shift at any time, for any reason, per processes we have put in place to ensure transparency, consistency and fairness.” On Sept. 2, Winebrake responded in the email chain, appearing to indicate a willingness to honor the requests. He wrote, “If faculty and students want to move their class from a residence hall that has a cluster, then I would support such a move … I don’t think faculty should have to put themselves at risk by being forced to teach in a residence hall.”
The university did not immediately make it clear whether or not the faculty requests were granted since the Sept. 1 email chain; a spokesperson did not provide responses on the topic by press time. According to numbers released last month, 15% of classes are taught in-person and 59% are online. The remaining 27% are a mix of the two.
It is possible that the classes in question have been reorganized since the time of these emails.
Update: On Monday, a university spokesperson said that in early September, of a total 158 sections, 105 sections of UNI 101 were taught in the residence halls through a hybrid system of virtual and in-person learning. “Six instructors teaching hybrid sections in the dormitories inquired about wanting to move courses online or to another space due to concerns about clusters. Dr. Katrin Wesner and her team visited the spaces and deemed them as safe as any other academic space on campus. Concerned instructors were, however, offered the option to move fully online for a period of time (which they did, prior to the de-densification on 9/7).”
Following the changes to housing structure in September, there were only eight sections of the course remaining which involved face-to-face time in the residence halls, according to the spokesperson.
Administrators give RAs a breakdown on de-densification plan
A late summer rise in positive cases at UNCW prompted talks with the local health department and other leaders, geared toward finding ways to be proactive about minimizing future public health risks. After the talks, UNCW leaders emerged with a path forward, and announced on Sept. 8 that first-year roommates in dorms would be separated. A recording reviewed by Port City Daily shows administrators leaned heavily on resident advisors to execute this de-densification plan, shifting added pressure onto a student employee base that already had their plates full.
UNCW student Martina Litty was a resident advisor until she quit on Oct. 12. Unlike RAs who worked in first-year dorms, Litty was assigned an upperclassmen dorm and wasn’t involved in executing the plan — which asked for the two roommates to decide internally how they would handle the request to convert their room to a single.
Groenendyk, the housing director, detailed the path for implementation in a virtual meeting with RAs the day prior to the public announcement, Litty said.
RAs were told to prioritize enforcing the new measure over the next few days, according to a meeting recording. It would involve checking in with all roommate pairs, and moderating some tough discussions on how the roommates wanted to handle it.
“We were asking about our safety concerns and the attitude didn’t seem serious sometimes,” Litty said. “That was frustrating.”
A man in the recording, who Litty said is Groenendyk, details the to-be-announced plan to student employees. He told them the policy was designed in part to assuage concerns of county health department leaders, who told UNCW that, if not for the 18-24-year-old population, the county’s Covid-19 case numbers might actually be on the decline.
“We’re going to ask that you participate in the process of helping students to figure out which one is willing to move, and which student is going to go home,” Groenendyk said in the recording. “We recognize there is probably going to be some negotiation that occurs, and we will continue to de-densify the rooms until we run out of space.”
As to the negotiations, he asked RAs to help their residents move things along as quickly as possible.
“If we run into a situation where the two students are like, ‘Hey this is my space and I don’t want to leave,’ and the other student says ‘Hey this is my space and I don’t want to leave,’ the assignments team will randomly select students to move,” he said. “We are not releasing students to the off-campus market. That would, from a public health perspective, not achieve anything for our community and for the county.”
Affected students were told they had the option to return to their parents’ house, but could not find an off-campus housing option.
Many RAs flooded the chat to ask questions about what was specifically being asked of them, and how the requests would impact their already-burdensome workload. They also wanted to know how the university would ensure this move did not additionally propel infections, given that students from the hot-spots would be sent into areas that had been less affected by transmissions.
“If we can keep our numbers low, there is no plan or intent to go to 100 percent online, undergraduate classes,” the administrator said on the Sept. 7 call. “There is not a desire to pivot. We want to keep as much of the face-to-face experience going as we can. And that’s a university objective.”
Litty said she quit because she believed senior leadership was too dismissive of concerns coming from resident advisors. She recalled a virtual meeting in which resident advisors asked a different administrator what the plan was if an outbreak among RAs occurred.
“The guy we were talking to laughed, in that startled ‘I don’t even know how that’s a question’ type of way,” Litty said. “He laughed and basically said there wasn’t really a plan.”
Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 478-6511