BOONE — As Appalachian State University is nearing six weeks until its scheduled return of students for face-to-face learning, faculty and staff continue to voice concerns about how the fall semester will operate.
Chancellor Sheri Everts and interim Provost Heather Norris released a joint letter on July 2 to address questions and concerns from faculty and staff. The letter states that the responsibility of reopening “the equivalent of a small city” and the impact on the surrounding community weighs heavily on administrators. The letter also stated that that the university understands that it cannot always foresee the consequences of its actions, but that it is working with every available resource to mitigate dangers.
“While health and safety are our top priorities, as the largest employer in the region, we cannot ignore that moving to all online instruction will most certainly have detrimental economic and emotional impacts on the lives of our students, employees and citizens of the town of Boone and the surrounding region,” the letter stated. “Considering these factors does not mean we are prioritizing money over lives — not to consider them would be irresponsible.”
The university’s Faculty Senate hosted a June 6 special meeting attended by more than 300 people. Faculty were able to ask questions related to COVID-19, such as fall 2020 class schedule planning, health concerns and university operations. At the start of the meeting, Chair Michael Behrent stated that the university community has to be realistic about the tradeoff it faces while also recognizing how frustrated faculty have been.
“On the one hand, we are concerned about our health and that of our staff, colleagues and students,” Behrent said. “On the other hand, we do face some serious financial obstacles. In some instances these goals are pitted against one another. We can denounce the situation that created this tradeoff, but it’s impact on us is no less real.”
Andrew Koricich, associate professor of higher education, talked of a similar choice — between a loss of money and a loss of morale. He indicated that moving as many operations online as possible would create a significant financial impact for the university, but that reopening the campus would have permanent and severe impacts on the morale of faculty and staff.
“The only reason the institution flourishes in the face of stagnant appropriations is because the people who work here give their all to make this place great,” Koricich said. “Putting employees and their families at greater risk during this pandemic will quickly erode the morale and goodwill necessary to keep Appalachian on its current trajectory.”
The letter explained that the state of North Carolina is projecting a 10 percent reduction in revenue, and App State is predicting it will experience a $15 million shortfall in state appropriations for the coming fiscal year. Additionally, the university stated that it could see a negative impact on enrollment. For every 1,000 fewer students enrolled at App State, the letter said administrators calculate a corresponding loss of approximately $20 million.
“Let us be clear — human lives mean infinitely more to us than financial solvency, but to not consider our financial position would be grossly negligent,” the letter stated.
Everts and Norris stated in the letter that people commonly ask why the university continues to have athletic programs and construction projects carry on when facing financial difficulties.
The letter states that money that is in trusts for athletics, construction and other uses are legally bound to be used in those ways. Additionally, decisions about sports cuts are based on loss of revenue, not supporting athletics, according to the letter.
“While it is undeniable that Athletics generates revenue for the institution in measurable ways, including paying tuition and fees, Athletics is managing their budget shortfalls with serious measures, including employee furloughs. Every student-athlete scholarship is paid to the university by Athletics through fundraising, and student-athletes who are on partial or no scholarship pay the difference or full tuition.”
Jill Ehnenn, a professor and the assistant chair of the Department of English, asked Norris if the university would go forward with face-to-face instruction if the state continues to be in Phase 2 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s reopening plan. Norris said that if that were the case, it would be a University of North Carolina system and Cooper decision on how to move forward, but that she couldn’t see how the university could fully reopen at that point.
Renee Gamble, a staff member in the Department of History, raised concerns during the July 6 meeting about what plans may be in place if a reasonable percentage of faculty or office staff on campus contract the virus and aren’t able to be replaced quickly. Gamble was also curious about what she should do if someone enters her office without a mask. Similar concerns of how faculty should enforce the university’s mask policy in classrooms were shared during the June 22 Faculty Senate meeting.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs J.J. Brown said that student conduct violations for those who don’t abide by the mask policy can be reported at tinyurl.com/ydgezgyz. A violation could lead to disciplinary sanctions, such as a suspension, depending on the situation, he said.
According to the letter, App State’s Student Affairs office is in the process of creating education and training modules and public health campaigns to reinforce messages of safe behavior when it comes to COVID-19 safety measures. Brown stated during the meeting that the university is also engaging in a survey to gauge student compliance with face coverings and other parameters.
The university also has plans to utilize peer-to-peer opportunities, clubs and service organizations, residence halls education and training to aid in safety education as well.
“We know from the evidence-based sexual assault prevention, drug and alcohol abuse prevention and suicide prevention work we do that these methods are not a guarantee, but we also know they make a difference in student behavior,” the letter states. “Unfortunately, the use of face coverings is becoming politicized, so we must work together to elevate this public health measure as a community expectation, rather than a personal statement.”
The letter explained that deans and department chairs have asked faculty about their teaching preferences for the fall, with revisions in May and June to reflect current preferences. Since that time, administrators have analyzed simulations of what classroom capacities could be like, what space is available on campus for classrooms — including administrative space — and what course delivery options could be available (face-to-face, fully online, hybrid).
“While we worked on this balance, we did not want to have most of our classes online, so we looked at percentages but did not set a firm benchmark, as that would not have been fair or practical,” the letter stated. “As an institution, we excel at face-to-face learning, and it’s ideally what our students and many of our faculty prefer.”
Additionally, the letter explains that some programs present different risk issues and require different strategies for preventing infection, such as singing courses, classes in which students play wind instruments or physical education classes that require direct contact with others. April Flanders, a professor in the Department of Art, said her department has not been given clear instructions on how to clean shared equipment — such as kilns or looms.
The letter stated that Academic Affairs leaders planned to meet on July 2 to discuss the special accommodations process with department chairs. Everts and Norris stated that they recognize there may have to be a shift to online instruction again “at any time” if the state experiences progression of the COVID-19 virus.
The Faculty Senate entered into a closed session for roughly two and a half hours after the open part of the meeting. During the executive session, the group passed a statement asking each faculty senator to poll their departments on the department’s confidence in the administration’s planning for fall 2020. The results of the poll are to be shared at another special meeting on July 20.