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At Appalachian State, students whipsawed over conflicting COVID-19 messages from faculty, administration

Students at Appalachian State University in Bonn are receiving conflicting messages from faculty and administrators as tensions rise over the university’s handling of COVID-19 in the spring.

In an open letter to students sent Sunday evening, Richard Ringans, a professor in the Department of Sustainable Development, wrote that the university “failed to provide the leadership, direction, and support that students, faculty, and the broader community need.”

Ringans, a former health economist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has spent more than two decades teaching at public health schools, said the university is not taking steps to protect students, faculty, and staff on campus.

“In many ways, the Appalachian State administration has let us down throughout this pandemic and now, despite warning for a month that we would face another major outbreak, they have done almost nothing to prepare us for a safe and uninterrupted classroom,” Rheingans wrote.

“There are many things they can do, including ordering vaccines and boosters, providing better masks, better testing and tracking, clearer and more comprehensive isolation requirements, clearer guidelines and support for faculty to deal with student illness and extended absences, and possibly starting online temporarily To ensure an orderly classroom. However, it seems extremely unlikely that the university will make any policy changes that protect us beyond the minimum guidelines of the CDC.”

Dr. Richard Rinnegan

Ringans said there has also been a serious break in communication between faculty and school counselor Sherry Everts.

“The chancellor refused even to meet with faculty to discuss these actions and told the Senate that the university’s safety officer would not answer faculty questions again,” Ringans wrote. “Given this leadership vacuum, the only hope left is us. You and me. Students and faculty.”

Rheingans went on to advise students on selecting and using appropriate masks, obtaining vaccinations and booster shots, and testing and quarantining in case of exposure or infection.

On Monday, a day after Rinnegan’s speech, an email attributed to the university’s seven deans tells students that “certain faculty members may share misinformation about university safety protocols and procedures and decision-making that is inaccurate and potentially harmful.”

Chancellor Sherry Everts

The email read “Please note that the ultimate source for COVID safety protocols is the University’s COVID website.” “Last week, I received four official university emails detailing COVID safety protocols for the spring. From now on, every week during the spring semester, you can expect two messages a week — one from Chancellor Everts and one from the COVID Operations team — sharing the latest COVID information. and safety protocols These messages are usually sent on Fridays, and are always posted on the University’s COVID website “Latest Updates” page Please make sure you check the university’s COVID website for accurate and up-to-date information about the university’s COVID security protocols, and what to do If your test result is positive, and other important information.If you have specific questions about the COVID safety information you are hearing from your college, you can reach us, your deans, or our emergency management team at [email protected]. “

Policy Watch contacted the university about the email, asking about the “misinformation” the university is trying to counter.

The university’s communications office responded with a written statement late Tuesday, saying it was not correct that Everts had not discussed COVID measures with faculty.

“Chancellor Everts has been attending faculty department meetings at their invitation to discuss COVID-19 safety and any other items they would like to discuss with her since the summer of 2020,” the communications office wrote. “Routinely, the Director of Emergency Management attends these meetings with other members of her leadership team. Additionally, throughout the fall 2021 semester, she said Hold weekly meetings with representatives from the Senate, as well as the Senate, student government, department heads and deans, to discuss COVID-19 safety with the Director of Emergency Management and her leadership team. As noted by the university representative [Heather] Norris, these meetings will resume next week.”

The statement also said it was also incorrect that the university omitted information about the CDC’s post-exposure quarantine guidelines.

“Please see the two emails sent to faculty, staff, and students regarding the CDC’s new isolation/quarantine guidelines, which state that ‘everyone should be tested at least five days after the exposure.”

Stella Anderson, a professor in the department of management at the university’s Walker School of Business, said faculty members have had no luck getting answers about what the university considers “disinformation.”

“We spent this Monday afternoon in the college senate meeting with multiple questions asked to give context and examples, please tell us what the need for this communication is to reach all students and what information you are talking about,” Anderson said. “We asked questions, but there were no answers.”

Dr. Stella Anderson

Anderson said that in the face of a new wave of record-breaking infections thanks to the omicron variant, faculty have struggled to persuade the university to change how it operates last semester. Management has not been responsive, and now blaming faculty for “disinformation” is “a slap in the face,” she said.

“It’s a disaster not to be afraid of,” Anderson said. “The failure of management, leadership, and strong communication is truly amazing.”

Anderson has worked for the App State for 29 years and served as its department chair and in the college Senate under several advisors. She said morale under Everett was the lowest she had ever seen.

“I’ve been at the table a lot,” Anderson said. “I know good management and leadership and I know when I don’t see it.”

Ongoing tensions over COVID

Tensions have been rising between Evert and App State students and faculty since August 2020. At the time, the university’s faculty board voted a “no-confidence” regarding Everett’s leadership, over the campus’ handling of COVID-19. A vote of no confidence is rare in the history of the UNC system.

Dr.. Louis Gallian

Louis Gallian, the current chair of the college Senate, said the relationship between the college and the chancellor hasn’t improved much since then. “I’m trying to figure out how we can move forward and not add fuel to the fire,” Gallian said.

Gallian said he had a productive meeting with the school’s dean on Tuesday but had not been in contact with Everts.

Gallian, like most advisors in the UNC system, said Everts is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with competing constituencies — her university’s faculty, staff and students on one side, and political appointees on the university’s board of trustees and the system’s board of governors on the other. Galian said that facing a public health crisis with the current pandemic arrangement would be difficult under any circumstances. The combination of diverse and sometimes conflicting interests in a highly politicized environment makes it even more difficult.

“The era that we are in now in the history of North Carolina higher education is really a domination,” Gallian said. “You have the majority of Republican legislators appointing the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors in turn appointing the Boards of Trustees. The Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors choosing the Chancellor. So you have an overriding philosophy of leadership and management in those groups. And it doesn’t quite align with traditional shared governance principles.”

Republican state lawmakers and their largely appointed appointees have rejected the kinds of steps that faculty, staff, and students support, including turning to online instructions during big spikes in infections, requiring proof of vaccination or negative PCR tests for on-campus events, and making a high demand. Quality masks in common public spaces.

Dr. Brian Burke

The situation in the App State has become unacceptable, said Brian Burke, associate professor in the Department of Sustainable Development.

“We are dealing with this COVID moment, and we are about to lose this semester, the way we did in 2020,” Burke said. “Some poor decisions or unlucky moves and we risk major disruption and really let our students down, throwing them into real academic and personal chaos.”

Burke points to a recent survey in which 63.5% of 441 faculty participants showed that the university’s current COVID protocols would not allow the university to “continue to operate normally, in a way that would allow them to provide a high-quality education to all of our faculty. Students, without interruption, for the spring semester.” entire “.

Nearly 63% said they think it is likely or very likely that they will have to move their courses fully online in the next few weeks due to the COVID infection.

The overwhelming majority also supported allowing faculty members to control the way they teach in their classrooms, requiring proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test for admission to all on-campus events and requiring all students, regardless of vaccination status, to be tested before the start of term.

Majority of respondents – 76% They said they would be willing to hold online courses in the first few weeks of the semester, until the current infections led by Omicron reached a peak.

Burke said these are all reasonable precautions to ensure students stay on campus and faculty can follow in-person instructions that everyone thinks are best. But the university administration was not yet ready to take any of the proposed steps.

In a written statement Tuesday, the university’s liaison office questioned the validity of the faculty survey.

“On January 7, Provost Norris responded to five faculty members who wrote a letter and shared partial results of a survey they indicated had been sent to faculty on January 5,” the statement read. “They did not share how many faculty members submitted the survey, nor did they share raw data, or any open responses with university officials. The survey was not distributed and was not vetted by the university’s institutional research team.”

The statement quoted Norris’ response. “As a matter of college, this email has been sent to me for a follow-up,” Norris said. “The Chancellor ensures that academic affairs – and thus academic areas including faculty – are involved through my office working with deans and chairs. I do this consistently and invite faculty to work through established processes within their departments and colleges as we move forward together.”

Although it was taken quickly in response to the new spring semester, Burke said the survey represented the opinions of hundreds of faculty and should not be dismissed.

“It really feels like a complete disregard for the faculty, staff, and students,” Burke said. “I think it’s really time to look at the leadership vacuum that we’re dealing with on this campus, which we’re dealing with.”


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