Appalachian State University has a full-blown COVID crisis on its hands. From move-in day on Aug. 10 until Oct. 3, the number of active positive cases on campus grew from 22 to 225. This has been a consistent increase that is progressing more rapidly over time. Further, the positivity rate of COVID tests grew from an average of 4.4 percent since Aug. 30 to 9.0 percent on Sept. 27. And of course, the Appalachian State family recently suffered its first tragic death from this virus.
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors (BOG) and Chancellor Sheri Everts are responsible.
First, the BOG mandated in August that all UNC system campuses reopen. That was in spite of the fact that COVID infections were still rising in the state and hospitalizations and deaths were at their highest levels.
Second, the faculty at Appalachian State urged Everts not to reopen in the first place. We passed a resolution citing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for Institutes of Higher Education (IHE) showing that reopening campus and housing students in dorms was considered most risky.
We thus called on the Appalachian State University Administration “to not fully reopen campus but instead to reduce the number of students on campus (and in Boone) to the degree possible. … We support this alternative that results in less face-to-face contact, a lower density population on campus (and in town) and a safer delivery of course material.”
A letter by faculty, published in the Watauga Democrat, stated that: “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,” (July 15). We explained why this was not safe.
Instead of bringing this argument to the BOG — the responsible thing for a leader of a university to do — Everts went along with BOG plans to reopen, allowing students to return to campus and even their residence halls. Now, Appalachian State has reported more than a dozen different COVID-19 clusters, including some in university dorms.
Third, Everts was repeatedly advised, both in senate meetings and in letters from faculty, that bringing students back to campus would lead to outbreaks both on and off campus.
I told her that, “Allowing 20,000 students to return to campus, Boone and Watauga County poses an unreasonable threat to the safety and well-being of students, faculty, staff and residents in the area. Appalachian State students come from all over the state and the region, including many areas with very high infection rates. Reopening the campus and inviting students back will likely lead to significant … spread of the virus resulting in the potential illness and deaths of faculty, staff, and students. This is unacceptable to Appalachian State faculty and it should be unacceptable to you,” (June 26).
In one of my letters to Everts, I asked her, “Do you really want the illnesses and potential deaths of members of the App State family on your hands? I don’t,” (July 6).
Our faculty letter stated that “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.” A similar online petition gained hundreds of signatures.
I even told Everts, in writing, that reopening campus and allowing students to return was reckless endangerment, defined as “acts that create a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person. The accused person isn’t required to intend the resulting or potential harm, but must have acted in a way that showed a disregard for the foreseeable consequences of the actions.” I pointed out that “illness and death are clearly foreseeable outcomes of reopening,” (Aug. 1).
Everts did not respond. And she went along with reopening plans anyway.
In response, the Faculty Senate passed this resolution: “Be it resolved that the Faculty Senate of Appalachian State University hold the Board of Governors and Chancellor Sheri Everts responsible for any illness and death resulting from COVID-19 as a result of reopening campus in spite of clear warning signs available to all and over the objections of the faculty,” (Aug. 17).
Now, 800 people have tested positive for the virus (including 724 students), the vast majority since reopening. And one student has died.
Yet, the Board of Governors has not ordered campuses to close and students to leave dorms.
Everts has not announced plans to close campus either. She clearly has the power to do this, as UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and ECU have taken similar actions.
The Board of Governors and Everts are responsible for reopening. They are responsible for staying open. And they are responsible for the rapid spread of the virus that has now resulted in the death of a student.
By Matthew Robinson, PhD, professor, Government and Justice Studies, Appalachian State University