Q&A: Talking COVID-19 with UNCW administration

Front+of+UNCW%27s+campus+

Lauren Wessell

Front of UNCW's campus

William Becker, Staff Writer

This interview was conducted on Aug. 21, by Seahawk Staff Writer William Becker.  Notably, a piece by Becker was published on Aug. 1, simply titled as “UNC System’s fall plan betrays students and staff amid COVID-19.” This piece was extremely critical of the UNC system and its decision to continue operating in-person classes during the threat of COVID-19. 

As of Aug 20, two UNC schools (NC State and UNC Chapel Hill) have gone to completely remote learning. In response to the article, Christinia Schectman, a Public Relations Specialist at the Office of University Relations contacted Becker in hopes of conducting a discussion between William Becker and notable staff members at UNCW.

 

William Becker (WB:)

How do you guys feel like we are going to be different from UNC Chapel Hill?

Mike Walker, Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students (MW):

Well, you know, if we do what we were asking students to do, right? And certainly, you can argue that it’s a little easier for us because we’re not quite as big, we don’t have off-campus fraternity houses, and we don’t have Franklin Street. So I mean, I think we have some advantages that should enable us to try to push through this. I mean, that’s an optimistic statement, but I just think, if we do what we need to do, and we’re careful and safe we can continue to have classes in person. Katrin, would you agree with that?

Katrin Wesner, UNCW Student Health Center Director and Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (KW):

Yeah. So I think we all have to do our part. I think that’s the most important. We’ve laid the groundwork. Now we all just need to all follow through. I think there’s a lot of chance for success. The hard part is, you know, we’re doing this within a community and the state, certainly is following numbers in the county, but if we all do our part, the better we do, the better chance we have.

WB:

Do you think that’s more dependent on the students or the administration or even both?

KW:

So, I think that the reality is, there’s many more students than there are faculty and staff. We also need our faculty and staff to do all the same things; wear their face coverings, not go to big gatherings, you know, stay seven, six feet apart, socially distance, all those things. Everybody needs to do it. The issue is there’s just more of you.

MW:

Yeah. And I would only add that, you know, if you look at at least what is being portrayed about schools that are closing Notre Dame, Michigan State, Chapel Hill, NC State, they’re at least portraying the connection between off-campus gatherings, student socialization, and a spike in their rates. And I’m not stating that as a fact, I’m just telling you, I read the newspaper like you, and that does give us I think, a higher impetus to really work with our students on those, those issues, right? Because that risk-reward proposition for them when they’re 18 to 22 is probably a little different than this for me.

WB:

What do you guys say to accusations that we’re pretty much here because the UNC system wants money? Like we could be online, and a lot of people, you know, even to some extent myself, have asserted that it would be better to go online therefore, we’re here kind of just because the UNC system wants to make money out of us. What do you guys say to accusations like that?

MW:

I mean, I wouldn’t agree with that because we’ve put provisions in place for [where] students pretty much can take all their classes online if they want to. You know, the hope is that when this thing pivots in a positive direction, we’ll be able to resume the traditional experience that we provide in our very special community. 

So I think it’s also important to recognize that, you know, we have faculty and staff who have, they have jobs, and they want to do those jobs because they love working with students. And so they want to be here. You know, if you walk the UNCW campus right now, there’s tons of faculty and staff in person, they’re trying to do what they can do to help our students. And some of those could be working from home but choose not to because they know the importance of being there for the student experience. So I wouldn’t agree personally that it’s about money. Certainly, the UNC system is a business, but our business is education. And that’s what we’re trying to enact. I’d welcome additional commentary from my colleagues on that.

Larry Wray, Executive Director of Campus Life (LW):

As I talk to students, I have lots of students who tell me that they made the choice to be here because they want that undergraduate experience that we’re really famous for giving. And certainly, that looks a little different today than it would have a year ago or two years ago. 

But lots of the students I’ve talked to are telling me, “Look, I want to do everything I can to stay here in person.” 

Now some of that may have something to do with not wanting to take a class in the bedroom beside your mother or father, and I get that, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that they really want to be here. And as Dean Walker said, they’ve been able to make a choice. You could stay and do all your classes, virtually right now we’ve given that opportunity, and lots of students have taken us up on that. So I think we’re trying to do what we can for all students and some want to do that virtually and some want to try to have that in-person experience.

KW:

I would echo that I think, you know, obviously, there is choice involved. So students and families did choose to come here. The other piece is there’s lots of things on campus like we just heard an update at another meeting about all the research that’s happening on campus, and the faculty that are working on that and that have undergraduate students and graduate students working with them to have those out of classroom experiences and other pieces that are in addition to just be you know, that classroom learning. So I think there’s also other things that happen on campus that may have encouraged people, to choose to come here.

WB:

So what classes are being [offered online], things changed pretty quickly over the summer, but I remember checking and feeling like most of the classes that were available completely online we’re like, more of the common base-level classes as opposed to the, I guess, major-specific classes. Has anything been done to kind of combat that or?

MW:

I’m gonna see even if Katrin among others can answer that because that feels like maybe more of a question for our colleagues in academic affairs. I’m not going to hazard a guess at that, because I’m not going to hit the mark closely enough. Katrin, do you have any intel on that?

KW:

Yeah. So in looking back, I know that yesterday, we got an update on the number of classes that were face to face and I’m feeling it’s like 15%, and then 30% hybrid, then whatever’s left. 55 percent totally online, so I think it’s probably a variety. I think the ones that are face to face, it’s probably a good idea to talk to academic affairs, but it seems like those are the ones that are more hands-on or more that need people. I know I talked to an acting professor who said they’ve got people socially distanced, but still working on that. So that’s probably a good question for Academic Affairs.

WB:

Right. I appreciate it regardless. If, well, not really, if at this point, but I think when there is a case or outbreak on campus, what’s going to be done?

KW:

Sure. So, if you look at the dashboard, we certainly had a number of people since March that have tested positive. All of them have been, most of them, have been off-campus, but in many different states, because we are having people report to us from far away as well. 

If there was a case on campus, that person would be quarantined, or isolated. Quarantined if we’re waiting for a test result, isolated if we have a positive test result. That student may choose to go home, or they may choose to quarantine in our own campus quarantine/isolation space. We would work with that student to decide if going home is the right option. For many, that may be a perfect choice. But if you have to fly, if you’re not feeling well enough to drive, if you don’t have a car, if you have someone at home who has an underlying health condition or somehow otherwise compromised, going home may not be the best choice, so we’re really individually going to work with people. 

And we’re also going to, in collaboration with the county we will do contact tracing, to make sure that anyone who’s been exposed to that person has the follow-up that they need: that will likely be that they go into quarantine, then at some point, they are tested. 

And that again, we will, if their tests came back positive, we would contact trace on them. So that just sort of is a continuing process. The health center staff have been doing contact tracing for years; we do that with any communicable disease, so it’s not an unusual thing. It’s just that it’s gotten much more publicity. And we have a great relationship with the county to work that through. 

For students that live off-campus, we will work with them to identify whether they can quarantine or isolate safely in their off-campus residence, whether they want to go home or if we need to look for another option for them. The other piece is that we’re also happy to give faculty and staff suggestions of how to quarantine and isolate and then obviously, the common piece of that is that everyone needs to be working with the healthcare provider; students with the health center, faculty and staff with an off-campus health care.

WB:

One concern that I’ve personally had, you know, is that even if club activities and Campus Life aren’t happening students are pretty much going to go out and, you know, throw parties and whatnot. I know you guys talked about reporting students who go out. What exactly happens to students who get caught going out and partying and stuff, and not following rules?

MW:

So I’ll just back up and give a little more context. Our University Police Department has a mutual operating agreement with Wilmington police, such that Wilmington police if they happen upon a big party a block from campus that appears to resemble something that would include a number of our students, they have the ability to contact University Police to also come out to support that event. As you might imagine, WPD has 50 priorities on a Friday or Saturday night, one of which would be breaking up college parties, right? So, they enact the support of our officers to help in that regard. 

Historically, Wilmington police and our district liaison have always had the ability to forward reports to us that name our students, we review them, we cross-reference them with our enrollment database, and if our students are in the community doing certain things, we enact various measures. On a continuum, those measures vary from a phone call to the student to talk about it, a written warning, to an actual more formal kind of process for more serious infractions.

So to answer your question about things that violate executive order 155, assuming they land in the Dean of Students Office. reported accordingly, then depending upon the scenario, we’re going to review them. If we have the names of our students we will enact the same process that we’ve always enacted, right? On one end, a heavy dose of education, asking or requiring that they view the educational video associated with [the] COVID-19 [virus]. To actually using the Code of Conduct formally and charging them with (inaudible) violation of health and safety or non-compliance with the reasonable directives.

If we enact that process, the penalties can include at one end, a written warning to disciplinary probation and beyond, right? So, philosophically, I would just say that that, you know, the conduct process is meant to be educational, such that given the choice between a remedy that’s educational and rehabilitative, the students chose contrition, things of that nature: that’s what we’re going to land. We’re not trying to be overly strong-arming students, but we balance all that with the real need right now to be safe, right? And we don’t want to be the next campus that has to close classes and send students off, I mean, that’s not the business we want to be in and the bottom line is we don’t want students getting sick and that is the true bottom line here. 

So, you know, we’ve done so many things: correspondence, things in our websites, emails, zoom conversations with students. The chancellor and a group of us, Mr. Groenendyk and others started talking to all the respective residence halls last night through separate zoom meetings with the Chancellor speaking to them. That will continue today. We also have the Greek presidents and coun- Greek chapter council presidents today as well. So it’s admirable that we have a chancellor who’s taking the time to personally talk to our students about being safe and implore them to make safe choices? So sorry, I diverged there, but that’s sort of where we’re at on that realm of things.

WB:

How likely do you think it is that we’re going to close? Do you think it’s likely at all or do you think there’s no possibility whatsoever? 

MW:

We better let our health director start that one. I have an opinion but I’d be curious to hear hers.

KW:

So how likely is it that we’ll close? That’s really the question. Well, if I think if we had the answer to that, that might be our crystal ball. But, you know, I think the reality is there are a variety of factors that are going to go into that decision, and it’s going to include things like the number of cases that we have in our community. It’s going to include the ability to continue to provide services. So do we have, for example, a large number of absences in our faculty and staff that we couldn’t provide services to, to suddenly have the on-campus students: do we have a lot that are unable to attend class? So are we still able to complete our function? Do we have enough supplies? What is happening in our county? In our state? What is our K-12 community nearby us doing? There were seven- What else did I leave out there? 

But those are the types of things. Oh, guidance from the system, guidance from the state. So there’s a variety of pieces that could go into that decision, a number of data points. Anyone of those could pop high enough that that might, you know, move the decision quicker, but I think at the end of the day, what’s going to keep us from closing is to continue to do as much as we can on the prevention front. 

The three W’s; making sure we’re being as safe as possible so that we can keep the number of cases in our community as low as possible. You know, we would like to stay open the whole semester and have a really successful term. I think that Chapel Hill and State would have said the same thing. Like we all went into this hoping that we could have a really successful term, and we recognize there’s some external factors that may play into that, but our county numbers will be better if all of our numbers are better because we are a huge percent of the community. So does that make sense?

WB

Yes, it does. Thank you. So, I’m actually not in a dorm, I’m in a crossing right now. How is social distance working in like the dorms, for example? Or buildings with less than stellar air systems? 

Peter Groenendyk, Director of Housing and Residence Life (PG):

I’m glad to answer that. This is Peter, the director of housing. You know, that’s an interesting perspective. 

Physical Plant facilities folks have checked all the air handlers in the buildings; they’re all running in a way that we can cycle the air appropriately. You know, if you think about it, 1000 of our traditional freshmen beds are brand new. They can actually control the temperature by your room, very much like you can in an apartment. So I think we’ve done everything we can to mitigate concern in that area. 

As it relates to social distancing, those students have received the same guidance that you have in your apartment and that we’re asking students to limit their guests to one person per bed, per occupied bed. And that apartments, rooms and suites are treated as family units. Outside of your family unit, you should encounter others the same way you encounter people as you’re going about life outside of UNCW, which is to wear a mask, to wait till you’re 6 feet apart, and of course, to wash your hands.

WB:

During my freshman year (I’m a sophomore right now,) I distinctly remember the sanitation services not really running in the bathrooms on weekends, so things got really really nasty. I really talked about that in my article, I think, in pretty extreme detail. How exactly are bathrooms and dorms going to work when there’s 50 plus people sharing each shower and each toilet?

PG:

I didn’t read your article, so I’m not familiar with the comments that you made, so I can’t contextualize that, because the cleaning services are different based on the building that students are in.

[For] touch community-style bathrooms, we clean them every day, and then we go back through and we place them again and we clean high touch services. So if you’re in a community-style bathroom, your bathroom is cleaned every day. What happens in between there with student use and how courteous people are to the facilities that they share, that might vary from floor to floor and building to building and year to year, but we certainly do our part to ensure they’re clean and they’re safe. 

All high touch surfaces are sanitized every day. For [the coronavirus], we’ve extended those and we’re increasing the cleaning of high touch surfaces. We’re adding hours on the weekends to bring people into police those bathrooms and to again, sanitize those high touch surfaces. I hope that people recognize our effort and they’re treating their community and the people that also live in it with them kindly and courteously, and helping to take care of our facilities.

WB:

Right, I appreciate it, Peter, thank you. When it comes to students who intentionally trash the bathroom and stuff like that, I don’t even know, are you supposed to wear a mask in the bathrooms in the dorms?

PG:

We ask that when they are not in their rooms or suites or their apartments, that they wear masks. For instance, I’m in Pelican. If I’m in my room and I’m going to the restroom, which is a single-occupancy restroom, we would ask that they put one on, but we recognize, just like we do, we are all moving around like that and sometimes you don’t remember, so we’re asking that people kindly remind each other. This is a community effort. This is not easy. I think the best way to go about that is just to continually remind each other. 

WB:

Well, I actually don’t think I have anything else to ask you guys. Is there anything you want me to know that I haven’t asked?

MW:

We’ll just go around. Director Groenendyk, anything from your perspective related to housing?

PG:

No, thank you.

MW:

Okay, and Larry Wray is our executive director of campus life. Larry, anything else from the campus life perspective?

LW:

No, I think we’re good. I think I answered William’s questions in the written information we gave, and if he has any follow up on that, he’s welcome to ask me. What we would say, overall, is that we are seeing the density levels not be that high and we’ve had no real issues with anyone complying to our requests to either not move furniture or not sitting in certain seats or not wear masks. It’s all been very cordial. Our line management has been really good. The only time we’ve had any overflow into the outside line queue was the first night the Panda [express] opened for dinner. We did have folks out under the tents for a little while, but they were never left, what we would call a controllable area. So, so far, we’ve been really, really happy with the way the plan has worked.

MW:

Thanks, Larry. William, you probably saw in Larry’s responses, the real excellent work that his team have done on staging the four buildings in the Union area, both inside and out, so that really our students have decompression outlets for where they sit, where they eat their meals. I mean, we really have thought this through best we can. The use of Warwick and the Mac gym down in the Recreation Center as additional spaces for students to sit and eat has provided a good response for the predicted congestion that would be in those units and around the eating area. So I want to compliment them. Dr. Westner was our former director of student health but she’s the current interim associate vice chancellor for student affairs and has been just on point since March on helping the university on all this so I’ll see if she has anything else to add.

KW:

Just one, thank you for doing an article. The more that we can get good information out there. the better, so we appreciate that. A programming note: the Student Health Centre starting tomorrow will be open seven days a week so that students with [coronavirus] concerns or questions can get those answered on the weekend. And then if you could just sort of encourage and plug the [email protected] email address for when people have questions. Because I think that one of the things we’re finding is that when people don’t know where to ask their question, they may ask it to someone who doesn’t have the most current information or then has to go spend their time to figure out where to ask the question.

I know we have, you know, a staff that really wants to make sure that the students find the answer. So if we can just give the students that place to go, that might save everyone a little step. So any [coronavirus] related questions, you can just email to [email protected] and we can pass those out to the right place.

MW:

I would just add that, you know, you look at the UNCW community, to your question about whether we’ll get through this and how, you think about this being a campus that for three years have successively and successfully managed hurricanes, right? [A] hurricane is a crisis. We’re in a crisis now. This is the organization that I think is highly equipped to deal with change and to deal with critical and significant challenges. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be any better than next campus, but it just means that we have the mentality I think, to work through complex problems creatively. So I would just say that from 10,000 feet as well.

LW:

Excellent. I have one more thing where, you know, you mentioned that there you were, you were a little bored right now and I just want to also plug the virtual programming that we’ve got set up for students. Make sure that if you do want to put some information in your article about the ability to go to, the ability to use Wavelink and the CORQ app to be able to find events will be really important.

WB:

Thank you for that too. 

Going back to what you were just talking about, let’s say we do have a hurricane, how is that gonna affect the coronavirus response? How will you maintain social distancing when everybody’s evacuating? Let’s just say we have the same situations as last year with Dorian or even, you know, a situation like Florence, how is that going to be handled?

MW:

Larry Wray was hoping we would get through this interview without you asking that question, but since you did, we’re gonna answer it. So you know, we’ve been working the last couple of weeks. I mentioned Larry because he’s one of the vital staff members, along with others who, when a hurricane hits the radar and starts heading our way, jumps into action, starts thinking through evacuation plans and things of that nature. Certainly, Mr. Groenendyk does as well. 

So we’re, you know, we’re [doing the] best we can, we’re making plans for how we would respond. You know, not all hurricanes require evacuation, right? So on a continuum, you could have various hurricanes where you sort of stay put, and you manage things and you get through it. It’s those extreme hurricanes, where we have students, often primarily international students who have to be relocated, that we have, you know, significant challenges with, but we’re thinking through those things. 

We have reciprocal agreements with various campuses in the UNC system that have historically hosted our students [and] brought them in buses. And obviously, there’s one example buses would have to be, you know, in compliance with [the coronavirus] restrictions, but we’re thinking through it, we thought through it, we’ll be ready if that requires it. We sort of hope we don’t get that double whammy. We’d love to have a pause and significant hurricanes between now and when [the coronavirus] clears. But it’s among the things that we’re currently thinking about. Larry, anything to add on that?

LW:

No, I just would also add that it will be like everything else: a little bit easier from the standpoint that we do have less density, both on campus and throughout the community. So at least that will be something that will make it a little easier to manage. But as you said, we have been for weeks now, thinking through these scenarios and developing a plot.

WB:

Alright, well, that sounds good then actually, that is reassuring in many ways. So I appreciate it. Thank you.

MW:

Unless you have anything else, William, we’re good. We appreciate your time. We’re always available on email and by phone to answer any follow-up questions and we appreciate your time and anything you can do to help us you know, push out all the critical information pertaining to this. So thanks for your time this morning and thank you.

WB:

Thank you guys so much for arranging this. Really. I think it’ll help a lot of people.