Education

Its Plan Is Risky, Its Community Is Vulnerable, and Cases Are Surging. Why Is This University Reopening?

In mid-June, Robin G. Cummings held a virtual town hall to fill faculty members in on the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s latest plans to return students to campus in the fall. With state cases of Covid-19 on the rise, Cummings, the chancellor, quickly faced a question that faculty members and others have been asking across the country: Why open the university for in-person classes, instead of going all online?

“The short answer,” Cummings said, “is that this is a decision that we as a system made some time back.” Some of Pembroke’s students, he continued, had trouble accessing the devices and internet connection they needed to finish their courses when the university went remote in the spring. To get an education, they needed to be back on campus.

Then Cummings made an unusually frank admission: He feared if Pembroke opened all online, some students would take a gap year.

“We’re facing a potential 10-percent cut in our budget” from state appropriations, he said, unmasked at a table of other unmasked administrators. (Asked about it later, Virginia Teachey, Pembroke’s vice chancellor for finance and administration who was also there, said they didn’t wear masks because they were more than three feet apart.) “We get significant funding from our students, from them paying tuition, and there’s a significant difference between that tuition and online,” Cummings said. “Now you might say, ‘Oh my gosh, are you making a financial decision?’ To some degree, yes.”

“We live and die on our students coming to this campus,” he said later that afternoon, in a town hall for staff members. The Chronicle received recordings of both through a records request.

In North Carolina and across the country, wherever faculty members fear their institutions’ fall plans are inadequate to prevent major coronavirus outbreaks on campus, many suspect it’s all about the moneycolleges’ financial dependence on students paying full, in-person tuition and housing fees. Generally administrators don’t say so publicly.

“That’s just who I am,” Cummings told The Chronicle. “With Covid, we’ve tried to inform faculty all along of: This is what I know, these are the facts, and this is what we’re going to do.”

But the university’s reopening plan is laden with mortal risk. Public-health experts interviewed by The Chronicle said aspects of the plan seemed insufficient to protect those on campus and the surrounding community. Still, the university is going forward with reopening. This week, students began moving back into the dorms, which are being filled to their usual capacity. About 1,900 North Carolinians are testing positive for the coronavirus a day, up from about 1,300 when Cummings held the town halls in June.

Pembroke’s dilemma echoes that of other institutions in North Carolina and across the country: How do you balance the risks of opening in person with the benefits that a student — and a community — get from a return to in-person operations? How do financial considerations skew that decision making? And for small colleges in big systems, how can they balance campus needs with top-down mandates?

Every college that reopens for in-person instruction this fall faces some risk from Covid-19, but at Pembroke, the danger seems especially acute.

First there’s the university’s location: Robeson County, which has seen the state’s highest rate of coronavirus infections recently. One of the county’s top employers is Mountaire, a chicken-processing giant. Meat-packing plants across the country have become Covid-19 hot spots because employees often must work in close proximity, and Robeson County plants have seen several dozen positive cases, according to The News & Observer.

Robeson and surrounding counties are home to the Lumbee Tribe. Forty-two percent of Robeson residents identify as American Indian, and 24 percent as Black. These are the two groups of Americans that have been the most likely to die of Covid-19, in part because they’re overrepresented in jobs that put them in contact with others and can’t be done from home. UNC-Pembroke was founded in 1887 as a college for American Indian teachers, and Native American and Black students outnumber whites on campus. Last year, UNCP enrolled just under 7,700 people.

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Then there’s the university’s own return-to-fall plan. Pembroke doesn’t plan to universally test its campus for the coronavirus. The fall guide for students recommends getting tested if they feel symptoms of Covid-19, or if they know they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Because of space constraints, Pembroke will encourage students who can to return to their family homes if they test positive for the coronavirus. It’s a policy that links the university more intimately to its community than at institutions planning to quarantine infected students. A major route of transmission for Covid-19 is between people living in the same house. Some campus outbreaks will be carried home, likely to Robeson or the surrounding counties, from which 53 percent of students hail.

“Sending them home to infect their families, their brothers, their sisters, their aunts, their uncles, whoever it is they’re living with, we don’t want that,” said Cotrayia Hardison, a rising senior and the student-body president. “I don’t want that. I want to keep students here. We just don’t have the space for it. Our university is not that big.”

The university has 40 rooms set aside for quarantine and “might” be able house more people than that, depending on how many students ultimately decide to move into the dorms, said Jodi W. Phelps, a Pembroke spokesperson. Models suggest that the number of people quarantined on a college campus could climb quickly, as all of a coronavirus-infected person’s close contacts need to go into isolation too.

“This plan highlights the risk now that they’re adding to students’ families and to a larger community,” said Emily R. Smith, an assistant professor in George Washington University’s global-health department.

Smith was one of a half-dozen epidemiologists and researchers specializing in coronavirus inequities, unaffiliated with Pembroke, with whom The Chronicle spoke about the university’s plans. While acknowledging that they didn’t have all the details of what’s going on on campus — including for example what relationship UNCP had with local health officials — five said Pembroke didn’t seem prepared for an in-person reopening.

“If they are not able to set aside the space for quarantine,” wrote Tara C. Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, “perhaps they should reconsider their reopening.”

Phelps responded over text message to the idea that UNCP might not be ready for an in-person fall. “While I respect their opinions, as they indicated I’m not sure an accurate judgement of our university’s preparedness can be appropriately made without the full picture and understanding of our county, our region, our student population, the relationships and partnerships in place,” she wrote. “We have developed our fall plans with the advice and support of leading experts in public health, the coordination of state and local officials, and following all state-issued and CDC-issued guidelines for the operation of colleges and universities.”

On campus, some students and faculty members The Chronicle contacted supported having at least some classes in person. Nevertheless, they were unsettled at the idea.

Hardison does fine with online classes. Even before the pandemic, she took about half of her courses online to accommodate her work schedule. But she wanted to acknowledge those students who learn better in person. She supports the idea of Pembroke offering both online and face-to-face classes and allowing students to choose what they prefer. This fall, 38 percent of Pembroke classes will be held online, 35 percent in person, and 27 percent in a hybrid format.

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Hardison is from Greensboro, N.C., but stayed on campus over the summer for work. The campus was sparsely populated then, but now she’s watching it fill up as the university undergoes an extended move-in schedule. “I’m happy to see students here,” she said. “I’m still a little uneasy.”

Although she’s seen some students take mask-wearing and social distancing seriously, others aren’t. “People our age are more likely to be asymptomatic,” she said. “There could be someone who’s here right now who might not even know they have it. And if they happen to be one of those people who’s not wearing a mask, it’s going spread, very quickly, before we can get classes started.”

Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of the American Indian studies department and a member of the Lumbee Tribe, prefers to teach face to face and said each semester she seems to have one or two students who don’t have laptops or a good internet connection at home. She knows all online isn’t a good option for them. “I want to have as normal a semester as I can and avoid getting sick,” she said. “I don’t know how to feel about it, honestly. I know it’s a serious disease, and I certainly do not want to get sick.”

She thinks Pembroke has a “good plan” for opening. Asked about the risk to the community, she acknowledged it: “When we’re open, we’re pulling all these students from all these other places into the community, and that’s hard.”

Still, she defended Cummings and his administration. She felt they were aware of the health challenges Robeson County residents face. She thought they were balancing other needs: “UNCP is an important economic hub for this area, and one of the things that I know our chancellor wanted to do was not run the risk of really digging a hole, financially, where we have to lay off a lot of people. That’s really going to hurt our county if we do that.”

“These are extremely hard decisions to make about what is fair and who to be fair to,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to make those decisions and be responsible for them.” Cummings, who is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe, said he is acutely aware of the responsibility he bears for the region’s health. “I grew up three miles down the road,” he said. “I take my responsibility to the community quite seriously. You can believe, as a physician and a former [state] Medicaid director, that had I felt that this is not the right thing for Robeson County, I would have absolutely stood on a table and said, ‘No, I won’t do this.’”

“Education is probably the one long-lasting cure to any of the health inequities that we see,” he said. “My kids, my students, they need to get their education. They need to be on campus. Honestly, a good percentage of them need that face to face.”

All 16 UNC institutions of higher education, which together enrolled nearly 240,000 students in 2019, plan to open for some level of face-to-face instruction in the coming weeks.

Across the system, faculty and staff members are agitating for their institutions to reconsider their plans. Faculty at Appalachian State University and the Chapel Hill flagship have published open letters urging students to stay away from campus. Some faculty members are considering filing a class-action suit against the system, alleging that their universities’ reopening puts professors in danger. They cite problems like the shortened social distance and the filling of dorms to full capacity.

The decision to reopen was made at the system level, putting chancellors like Cummings in an awkward position. In a message to chancellors this month, the chair of the system’s Board of Governors emphasized that changes to fall plans would be made by the incoming system president, Peter Hans, and the board.

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“We all know the health and safety of our students, faculty, workers, and administrators is weighing heavily on each of our minds, and I really appreciate your diligence as we confront such an unprecedented challenge,” wrote the chair, Randy Ramsey, according to N.C. Policy Watch. “However, it is imperative that people that will have to deal with the consequences and repercussions of our decision regarding how to handle the fall semester in the university system make that final decision.”

If a chancellor wished to move their institution all online, they would have to discuss that with the system president and board, said Josh Ellis, a system spokesperson. “There’s emphasis to make sure the decision is made with regard to how it impacts the entire system,” Ellis said. When asked why the system doesn’t allow the institutions more independence to respond to local conditions, he wrote: “I would strongly reject any suggestion that institutions won’t be able to respond in the face of local conditions. Senior leaders at the UNC system are closely coordinating with our leading federal and state health authorities and state and local government officials.”

The dynamics at the UNC-system level are reminiscent of those at another red-state, public-university governing body, Georgia’s Board of Regents. Georgia has also exerted top-down control of its institutions with regard to what they can do to prevent coronavirus outbreaks on their campuses and in their communities. For example, the system initially forbade colleges from requiring face coverings on campus. After facing intense criticism, the state decided to require colleges to have face-covering rules.

Nadia N. Abuelezam, an assistant professor at Boston College and one of the epidemiologists The Chronicle consulted about UNCP’s plans, said moving a diverse university system as one isn’t appropriate during a pandemic. “Covid-19 disproportionately affects minority groups in the United States, and so I believe that minority-serving institutions do need to think about their plans differently from primarily white institutions,” she said. “There need to be differential resources and policies to account for the needs of this student body that may be different from the needs of other student bodies.”

Should things get bad at UNCP, Cummings said he could shut down the campus and go all online, although he wouldn’t share details on what the trigger to do so would be. He would need consult the UNC-system president and board, but said that would be easy and fast. “That’s just a matter of a call,” he said.

In a more recent town hall, on July 15, Cummings and his administration had made some changes, after seeing criticism of Pembroke’s and other UNC institutions’ fall plans. For one thing, they were sitting farther apart, though still unmasked. They had also arranged for six feet of social distancing in most classes — instead of the original three- to six-foot rule — except where instructors preferred closer quarters. A lower-than-expected enrollment allowed them to space students more widely, Cummings said.

The previous week, he said, he had received a letter from the UNC system, asking for plans in case of a 25- to 50-percent drop in revenue. “I was at a loss for words,” Cummings said, “as I am now.”

Back in one of the June town halls, he had laid out his dreams for the immediate future — practical ones, constrained by the moment. “My hope is that those kids go home at the end of November” when the fall term is scheduled to end, he said. “We have a successful commencement. We don’t have a hurricane and we’re back here on Monday morning and we all got a job and we all got work to do to get ready for spring.”


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