With only five weeks before our fall semester, Appalachian State University plans to welcome nearly 20,000 students back to Boone. Extensive precautions are being implemented “to ensure the safest path forward,” according to Chancellor Sheri Everts on June 26, in remarks to the Board of Trustees.
While well intentioned, we, as members of the faculty, cannot support the return of students to campus. We find the plans insufficient to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in our community.
The current plan includes face-coverings, self-reported symptom monitoring, targeted testing and contact tracing/quarantine, according to Everts and Interim Provost Heather Hulburt Norris on July 2, in “Answering Your COVID-19 Questions,” and Health Director Jennifer Greene (Appalachian District Health Department) on June 22, during the Appalachian State University Faculty Senate meeting. During that meeting, plans for testing, contact tracing and quarantine were shared. We thank Greene for her time and efforts. We value our public health office. These are good policies. They are not enough.
In the current plan, nearly 6,000 students will live in high-density university housing. Thousands more will live in high-density off-campus housing. Thoughtful on-campus policies will not ensure safe behavior off-campus. It is realistic to expect students to engage in normal college behaviors, including congregating in large numbers within enclosed spaces (for example, parties). Examples from other universities (such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Kansas State, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Washington and recently UNC) illustrate how viral outbreaks quickly spread.
Students will return to academic buildings with small classrooms, limited ventilation and narrow hallways. There is no plan for widespread testing of the campus community to identify asymptomatic cases before an outbreak. Our rural healthcare system has limited isolation beds.
But infection will not be contained on campus or in Boone. Students will travel freely during the semester. As infection reaches the High Country from distant locales, the high-density student population combined with the aging retiree population may be the perfect incubator for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In March, students returned home from a campus that had not seen active cases. We should not expect the same this fall.
Bringing the broader student body back to campus is irresponsible. It is not safe for students, staff, faculty or the community. Faculty have noted these concerns in several forms. Faculty Senate resolutions were passed in May and June. A survey at https://www.change.org/p/dr-sheri-everts-appalachian-state-university-instructors-petition-regarding-covid-19 gathered several hundred faculty signatures. But our voice was not heard.
It is dishonest to pretend that the in-person experience offered this fall will approximate a typical semester. Limited classroom instruction will take place from behind a mask or barrier. Social distancing will hamper the informal interactions that foster a free flow of ideas. Many students will complete online coursework in a double occupancy dorm room, donning a face mask just to walk down the hall. Promoting this as a return to normalcy is unfair to our students.
But it also is unfair to ask students to put their education on hold until a vaccine materializes. Fortunately, there are models of online instruction that recreate the intimate experience of an in-person classroom. A baseline of quality online instruction would allow a safe but limited return for specific courses and students. This is the only safe option for continuity of the educational mission.
We all look forward to a full return to campus, but the current environment does not allow this. We are aware of an economic impact of remaining online. We are aware of the much greater impact an outbreak in Boone would have. Some risks are worth taking. A full return of the student body in August is not one of those.
Please talk to our University leaders. Please reach out to the UNC Board of Governors.
Please stay home this fall and help keep us all safe!
Note: Faculty wishing to view or sign this letter may do so at https://forms.gle/Z9zZG8Q6rJmhViBx5. As of presstime, more than 150 App State faculty have signed the letter, according to the author.