COVID-19, Higher Ed, Public Health, Students

Starting spring semester remotely

January 17, 2022 |4:21 min read

Omicron variant forces hard decisions

Decisions about what to do under conditions of uncertainty are difficult. In such situations, there generally is not a clear right or wrong answer, and people who feel strongly on one side or the other (e.g., remote vs. in-person) may be unhappy.

I am grateful that, at the Gillings School, we can call on epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, behavioral scientists and others to advise on decisions we make regarding the pandemic. Our decisions are grounded in data and science. We pay attention to what other schools at UNC-Chapel Hill and beyond are doing and to university policies. On Jan. 7, our school’s senior leadership, including our Chairs’ Committee, in consultation with students, Gillings and university researchers, modelers and public health experts, made the decision to start the spring 2022 semester remotely, for three weeks, until close of day Friday, Jan. 28, unless data indicate we should act otherwise.

Given the transmissibility of the omicron variant, we decided to err on the side of caution. If we can be remote for three weeks, we can help to keep people healthy. Even though students and instructional faculty would be unlikely to get COVID from being in our physical classrooms, many would have to travel on buses and be in other public situations that could amplify their risks and those of people around them. I want to share some insights into our thinking and provide a succinct statement about why we made the decision to adopt remote learning for three weeks.

We had intended to be residential for spring semester, but as we moved steadily toward the first day of classes, it became urgent that we re-examine our plans. We got input from many people—infectious disease experts, department chairs and other school leaders, other deans at UNC and beyond. Not all agreed that we should start the term remotely.

These are the key reasons for our change of plans.

  1. More and more of our faculty members were requesting temporary changes to mode of instruction, and one department would have been fully remote for three weeks. Instructors were choosing different time frames for the period of remote instruction, and we risked creating a lot of confusion in the school.
  2. We received a letter signed by more than 100 students, mostly Master of Public Health (MPH) students, “call[ing] on the School of Global Public Health to offer remote options for all classes for the entirety of the semester.” We are not prepared to declare a remote semester, and the chancellor and provost have been clear that spring semester is to remain residential. In addition, there is no biologic rationale for declaring a remote semester now. If the models (see 4 below) are correct, cases will begin to decline by mid- to late-January and much more so by the end of February. After Jan. 28, individual instructors and students still can request remote learning if their circumstances warrant (e.g., they or family members are ill), and some large classes are likely to have additional options so we can accommodate all our students safely. In a time of ongoing uncertainty and ambiguity, it’s important that we remain flexible.
  3. Most of our students, faculty and staff managed remote instruction well in fall 2020 and spring 2021. But we know that remote learning is not ideal for all students, especially for long stretches. While the majority of our students are graduate level, there are about 300 third- and fourth-year undergraduate students in the Gillings School. Many of them, and some graduate students, too, need the support systems offered by residential learning, and we are committed to the high-quality education of all Gillings students. We will remain particularly attuned to the needs of vulnerable students during this period.
  4. UNC researchers, including several from Gillings, created new epidemiologic models which showed there could be 1,400 to 2,900 positive COVID-19 tests within the first 30 days of classes. Infections could peak two to three weeks into the spring semester with 850-1,650 new infections a day. Infections among students could reach 13,800 to 22,270 by mid-February. Although the report does not project catastrophic disease consequences, a lot of people carrying the transmissible omicron variant would be out and about. While models are not perfect, our modelers have done well to date, and it would be ill-advised to ignore their predictions. If we can reduce the numbers even a bit, it will make a difference for everyone, including health care workers.
  5. The tradeoff of in-person vs. remote for three weeks seems preferable when compared to the potential that we would contribute to illness among our people and on campus/in the community.

Like many decisions on complex matters, our decision to be remote for three weeks came with ambiguity. It would have been straightforward if we had detailed data about our population so we could be fully confident we had made the right decision. We do not have those data. We did the best we could, and we made the decision with input from a lot of people. My one regret is that we did not make the decision a couple of days earlier.

We recognize that we have disappointed and inconvenienced some students and some faculty members who were forced to retool their classes with very short notice. I extend my sincere thanks to our faculty, students and staff, who — even when circumstances are not ideal — remain committed to the vital teaching, learning, research and practice that happen at Gillings. In the coming weeks, I ask chairs, academic coordinators and faculty to be especially attentive to the needs of undergraduate students and all those with mental health concerns. While we should pay attention to them, especially, we should show every Gillings faculty member, staff member and student kindness, flexibility and adaptability. Together, we will make it through this latest challenge.

Wear your mask and follow other guidance to stay safe.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.