Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Virus spread at UNCW causing live-time shakeups, but fall semester plans hold steady

First year UNCW students move into Sandpiper residence hall in mid-August in anticipation of the fall semester. (Photo courtesy of Bradley Pearce/UNCW)

WILMINGTON—The low levels of Covid-19 spread in the early months of summer encouraged the University of North Carolina at Wilmington community. Like public institutions across the state, UNCW hoped the fall 2021 semester could reclaim a sense of normalcy after a year marked by ever-present virtual classes and the exodus of many students from campus. 

Positive outlooks from health officials turned more sour in August, when heightened virus spread, attributed to the delta variant, brought forth resurging case counts and hospitalizations. 

Wide-scale testing of the unvaccinated campus community and mandatory indoor masking are two central tactics UNCW is using to keep virus spread at bay. More recently, the university cancelled an early-semester carnival and restricted residence hall visitation policies. 

For instructors with a desire to move their classes online, the most recent university guidance allows high flexibility until Sept. 17. Professors who requested temporary changes to course modality will find out later this week if administration will extend accommodations further into the semester. 

The need for making adjustments on the fly has made many faculty more nervous than they were during this time last year, said UNCW chemistry professor and faculty senate president Nathan Grove.

“This semester, up until a month and a half ago, things were looking pretty good,” Grove said. “There’s a lot more uncertainty this semester than what there was this time last year, and so I think that’s feeding into some of the anxiety that the faculty are feeling.”

In recent weeks UNCW faculty and instructors have convened virtually on Friday morning Zoom calls that also include cabinet-level administrators, sometimes drawing over 300 participants. 

On last Friday’s Zoom huddle, Katrin Wesner-Harts, an interim associate vice chancellor and the university’s top health official, said about 6 or 7 percent of UNCW classes will be taught in an altered format until the Sept. 17 re-evaluation date, following requests from instructors.

This graphic, shared with faculty last Friday, illustrates UNCW’s approach to mitigating Covid-19 spread in the community. (Port City Daily/Courtesy UNCW)

“What that says to me is maybe the number of faculty that are really concerned is small, but it’s hard to gauge that,” Grove said in an interview. “Obviously, there’s a proportion of those that are really concerned.”

Grove added he foresees the temporary modality change policy being extended into October. 

Earlier guidance on this topic required professors to satisfy procedural steps, like channels involving human resources and the provost’s office, before they could secure approval to change course instruction style. 

The current guidance, announced to faculty Aug. 26 by Provost Jamie Winebrake, gives department chairs and school directors authority to approve modality changes for Covid-related reasons through Sept. 17, replacing the previous system. The temporary changes will not be reflected in Banner, the enterprise software that houses information about UNCW’s course offerings. 

Last year, as “mass gathering” restrictions underscored UNCW’s off-campus social scene, the university asked apartment complexes to report instances of large parties, and the Wilmington Police Department expanded a collaborative program with campus police to enforce Covid-related restrictions. 

According to a WPD spokesperson, this year the department “renewed a mutual aid agreement with UNCW Police.”

“We respond to any party calls that surround UNCW,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We continually monitor large gatherings that could potentially create a nuisance and are prepared to address them should the need arise.”

Surveillance testing — the initiative to test weekly all unvaccinated UNCW students, faculty and staff who have a campus presence — began in earnest Aug. 23, the second week of classes. The Seahawk reported that UNCW expanded the reach of surveillance testing to include off-campus students taking on-campus classes, after initially only applying the requirement to on-campus students. 

That week, between Monday and Thursday, the university tested 3,615 people; during the same window UNCW confirmed 408 Covid-19 cases among students. 

The next week there were 2,708 surveillance tests performed and 138 positives identified between Monday and Thursday.

On the Friday Zoom forum, Wesner-Harts said 3,000 students and 200 faculty and staff members did not report to a required surveillance testing appointment.

If an on-campus student misses three surveillance tests during the semester, they will lose their housing contract with no refund, and will be expected to come back to campus in the spring, Wesner-Harts said on the Zoom call. Off-campus students who miss three weekly tests will lose access to campus networks, like their email accounts. 

“There absolutely are consequences, but our goal is that we never get there,” Wesner-Harts said.

Adirondack chairs marked for social distancing on a UNCW lawn last fall. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Since Aug. 23, the university has disclosed 11 clusters of Covid-19 in different residence halls. The term is used by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to refer to instances of five or more virus cases in the same location over a 14-day window.  

Last fall it was common practice for universities, including UNCW, to disclose clusters with vigor — using text message alerts, emails and social media posts to keep as many people as possible in the loop about the locations of heightened virus spread on campuses. 

Universities are required by federal law to publicly disclose “immediate threats to health and safety.” The U.S. Department of Education released guidance last April telling universities that, to satisfy the statute in question, they should maintain a banner on official websites with Covid-19 information; nothing beyond that concerning Covid-19 case reports was required.

READ MORE: How the pandemic caused a university-focused crime reporting law to take on new meaning

Conversations took place last year about whittling down the optional cluster disclosures, especially after UNC-Chapel Hill moved to cut text alerts and restrict cluster reports to only social media accounts and its website. 

There was a cluster last year in Cornerstone Hall that UNCW leaders decided would be disclosed via campus networks rather than a text alert, as had been done up to that point. Title IX director Amber Resetar then added to a email thread between university leaders to say she just spoke with UNCW Police Chief David Donaldson. (Donaldson retired as UNCW police chief in June 2021.) 

“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,” Resetar emailed to other administrators. “We have staff on campus, particularly facilities and housekeeping that don’t have access to email while they work.”

Andrea Weaver, interim chief communications officer, then replied it would not be a problem to add back the text alert. 

On Aug. 20 of this year, representatives from different wings of the administration met and “recommended streamlining announcements on a dedicated section of the Best for the Nest website,” according to a university spokesperson, “and it was approved shortly thereafter by the campus leadership team.”

Now the university reports clusters on its Covid-19 website only. The link to the website, Best for the Nest, which has a subsection for cluster notices, is sent in an email every day to students, faculty and staff.

“This approach is consistent with Clery guidelines, and further establishes a one-stop shop for COVID-related information,” according to the university spokesperson. 

UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli pictured during campus move-in last month. (Photo courtesy Logan Wells/UNCW)

On the Zoom call, vice chancellor for business affairs Miles Lackey said there are some facilities adjustments in the works. Chairs will be moved from indoor dining areas to outdoor locales. Also, two large outdoor tents — one that can accommodate 100 diners and another that can fit about 50 — will be added to campus soon to give students outdoor locations to sit and eat. 

The virtual meeting concluded last Friday with a pointed question posed by Grove, who was moderating questions submitted via text chat, to Winebrake. 

“What did the UNCW administration do this week to advocate for a vaccine mandate?” Grove asked the provost. 

Beyond wanting flexibility in changing course modalities, a desire for vaccine mandates is top-of-mind for many UNCW faculty right now, Grove said in an interview. A few moments of silence followed before Winebrake said he didn’t know if the right people to address the question were on the call. 

Chancellor Jose Sartarelli then offered an answer. Such a decision, he said, rests with the N.C. Commission for Public Health. Until the commission opines on the topic, there would not likely be any movement on that front. 

Further, Sartarelli said on the Zoom call, there are politics involved. Many legislators in the N.C. General Assembly are committed to preventing vaccine mandates from becoming the norm at public higher education institutions. And the health commission, he added, was consulted to stay quiet and not issue an opinion or a position. 

Mark Lanier, assistant to the chancellor, then detailed the political reality on vaccine mandates. 

“Political capital is limited,” Lanier said. “We have a lot of priorities at stake in the general assembly right now. We are looking for salary increases for faculty and staff, using all of our political capital during the conference committee on that issue, because our other priorities are pretty well taken care of.”

The drum beat for vaccine mandates has picked up at other N.C. universities as well. Sartarelli and Winebrake then said on the call they had discussed faculty stances on mandates in conversations with leaders of the UNC System, which oversees all 16 public universities in the state. 

According to Winebrake’s comments on the Zoom call, more information on the faculty’s ability to request course modality changes this semester, beyond the Sept. 17 date, will be decided this coming Friday. 

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