Letter to faculty and staff

June 5, 2020

Dear Gillings faculty and staff members,

Why I am writing: To connect, reflect on where we are with the pandemic and share some takeaways as we start ramping up research and preparing for most people to return to on-campus work, with the fall semester beginning August 10th.

For just the facts, below are six things to know, followed by more perspective and details on some of the topics.

  1. Over the next couple months, we will begin a phased process of returning students, staff and faculty members to campus work in alignment with the university’s Roadmap for Fall 2020 (see the new Carolina Together website). Not everyone will return to campus at the same time. Many details are still forthcoming, but below are some key takeaways and highlights of how we, at the Gillings School, are activating the roadmap.
  2. Campus research operations will accelerate as labs on campus begin to repopulate early June at up to 50 percent capacity. For us, in the Gillings School, the target date for some people to begin returning to their campus labs is June 8th. Stay tuned for emails from Terry Magnuson, PhD, vice chancellor for research; Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, associate dean for research; Alexia Kelley, PhD, senior director of research. Some communications may come from Taya Jackson Scott, EdD, vice dean, and Brent Wishart, facilities manager. The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) is organizing a research study team to develop a voluntary COVID-19 surveillance study that includes testing and contact tracing. The team’s work may inform future decisions about testing on campus.
  3. Fall term will begin August 10th and end November 24th, just before Thanksgiving break. The new dates were chosen to minimize transmission of the virus and academic disruptions if there is a second wave of the pandemic in late fall, as some models and public health and infectious diseases experts predict. There will be no fall break. Class times are likely to change to accommodate increased need for cleaning classrooms. Dates and plans could change, depending on virus.
  4. We are making many physical changes within the school to keep people safe when they return to Gillings. For example, there will be changes in how people enter and leave buildings and classrooms.
  5. Our behaviors will help to keep us and others safe. Within Gillings buildings, we expect everyone to wear masks except when in a personal office occupied by one person only. Masks in classrooms are non-negotiable for students. We are working on safety solutions for instructors who need to remove masks for teaching, such as plexiglass shields at podiums. We also expect every person to follow social-distancing guidelines, and many rooms will be reorganized to support this requirement. Frequent handwashing or hand-sanitizing will be required. People working at Gillings will be provided masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, as needed. Anyone who is sick or has symptoms should stay home. These rules will evolve. This is about individual behaviors to help keep everyone safe—students, staff, faculty and their family members and networks. We are dependent on one another.
  6. Answers to many questions are pending more guidance from the UNC system, chancellor, the University’s Office of Human Resources (OHR) and others. See the May 29 message from OHR on Updated Work and Leave Provisions as of June 1, 2020 for current return-to-campus work guidelines. The Carolina Together website is a repository for information relevant to fall 2020 operations, and it will be updated regularly. Our school’s Coronavirus Information Portal is a great source of Gillings-specific information.

For those who want more information

Impact of the pandemic on Gillings people

It has been about 11 weeks since most people left campus in March and began working and learning from home. Some of you have been touched personally by having family members become sick with COVID-19, and some have lost loved ones. Others have experienced the awful economic losses of this pandemic and suffered in other ways. We empathize with your losses. All of us are affected by the pandemic, some, including Black, LatinX and Native American populations, disproportionately.

On May 24th, The New York Times published on the front page the names and a few words from the death notices of 1,000 of the now-107,000+ people who have died of COVID-19. It is a number too large to comprehend fully.  All were individuals with their own stories, families and the footprints they left behind when they died too soon. One of the names to be added is Health Behavior alumnus, Ken McLeroy, PhD, whom many will remember for his influence on health behavior theory and practice and, especially, his co-authored papers on the social-ecological model. Another is medical interpreter Dulce Garcia, 29 years old, who worked at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. She was known for her kindness, generosity, professionalism and ever-present smile, and was loved and appreciated by many patients, colleagues and friends — including some in the Gillings School — and family members.

The horrendous death toll from COVID-19 is a grim reminder that the pandemic is life-and-death business, and that what we do as individuals and collectively matters. Public health is more important than ever before. People in our school and public health more generally must study and intervene to overcome health inequities, including among race/ethnic groups and essential workers, such as those who work in the hog industry and grocery stores. I am grateful to the many people in our school and beyond our walls working every day to save lives. We are privileged to do this important work. Last week, Ralph Baric, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology in the Gillings School, and professor of microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine, was featured Tar Heel of the Month in the News & Observer, a well-deserved recognition. Our school’s Coronavirus Information Portal has links to media stories featuring Dr. Baric and many Gillings faculty members who are working on COVID-19.

The pandemic has exacerbated the public health crisis of systemic racism in America. Black faculty, staff and students have been traumatized by the recent deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police officers and vigilantes. It is a very difficult time (please see messages from university leadership and the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion). See my blog post prompted by the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Stay informed through Emergency Preparedness, Ethics and Equity (EEE) webinars, sponsored by Kauline Cipriani, PhD, assistant dean for inclusive excellence. Recordings of past webinars are available online. Register for Racial Equity Institute’s training, “A Groundwater Approach to Racial Equity,” offered online by the Gillings School and North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (NC AHEC), at no cost to participants, on four dates this month: June 12, 15, 26, 29. Training alone will not change behavior, but our commitment to act on  what we learn can change our own behaviors and the systems in which we live and work, including at Gillings.

Gillings research labs begin ramping up June 8th

Terry Magnuson, PhD, vice chancellor for research, sent a memo to the university community May 23rd (“Plans to Scale-Up Research on UNC Campus”) about how research will be ramped up in the coming weeks. This and other information is posted on the UNC Research website, COVID-19 page. See especially, “Key Takeaways for UNC Researchers.” Anyone working in a lab setting will be required to follow social distancing rules, wear masks, wash hands frequently and stay home when ill.

Gillings Return to Research Operations Team

Gillings Return to Research Operations Team Members

Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, associate dean for research, has shared guidance for Gillings researchers who plan to resume research operations in facilities and labs at reduced capacity as part of the Phase 1 return to campus (for Gillings, largely research labs). Guidelines on practices to follow in the labs, including how work will be scheduled to permit social distancing, are being provided, and masks also will be provided. Individuals who can effectively conduct their work remotely should continue to do so to protect their and others’ health. Each lab has developed (or will develop) a lab safety plan to keep people safe (including staggered work hours, to accommodate 200 sq. ft. per person spacing, with up to no more than 50 percent on-site occupancy limit) for review by relevant chairs, Penny Gordon-Larsen, Alexia Kelley, and Facilities Manager Brent Wishart. Those plans should afford each person working in research settings, including students, an opportunity to express preferences and concerns. Everyone working in labs is expected to comply with CDC-recommended mask wearing, social distancing and hygiene practices. They should not come to Gillings if sick or exhibiting symptoms of illness. Research spaces overseen by the OVCR are being carefully scheduled to maintain appropriate researcher density. Feel free to contact Associate Dean Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, (pglarsen@unc.edu) or Alexia Kelley, PhD, senior director for research, (alexia_kelley@unc.edu) with questions.

Getting ready for Fall term

As Chancellor Guskiewicz wrote, “Our campus pulled together through the uncertainty of the spring, and now we must turn our attention to a fall semester that will be like no other in our history, and another opportunity to rise above the challenges.” Several national student surveys, and data from incoming undergraduates here at Carolina, show that students are eager to have on-campus experiences.  With every precaution taken to protect the safety, health and well-being of students, staff and faculty, we must prepare for some classes, operations and activities to resume on campus, if we are to avoid even more serious financial consequences than we already are facing from the pandemic. The UNC and Gillings Roadmaps will provide initial and evolving guidance to explain what will be available and how it will be implemented.

We must be prepared for twists and turns in the days, weeks and months ahead. We have conducted two separate surveys – one of key stakeholders who can give perspectives on student issues, facilities, instructional design, room scheduling, tech support services that relate to our academic plan; and, a survey of faculty who have fall or spring instructional responsibilities. With these results in hand, we are working closely with department chairs, who are in the process of having conversations with faculty instructors on a course-by-course basis to identify preferred teaching formats for each course, support needed and unique challenges that may exist. We will look across departments to make sure we can accommodate specific course requirements on a priority basis, first, with large required courses, and then with other courses based on class size. By or about July 1, we expect to have a working knowledge about the teaching format and schedule for the majority of classes offered at Gillings. We will release this information as quickly as possible to all students, staff and faculty so plans can move forward for our August 10 start. Information about orientations at the university, school and departmental levels will be forthcoming shortly. If everyone continues to work collaboratively, we are very optimistic about having a successful fall semester.

Classes that are held face to face (mask to mask) will include physical distancing and special cleaning protocols. Small classes will meet in larger spaces, and large lecture classes will be held in smaller sections, delivered remotely or a combination of both. We cannot be caught short by planning only for one mode of teaching. We have students (and faculty) who will not be able to attend classes in person.  We know incoming international students will have great difficulty getting to campus. There are efforts to smooth the pathway for these students to participate in classes through recordings of “live” courses or through asynchronous coursework. Laura Linnan, ScD, Senior Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, is leading the effort, in close collaboration with department chairs and other key partners. In the next two weeks, we will provide Provost Blouin our initial academic plan describing how each of our more than 280 courses will be taught and how we will return to campus operations. Please contact Laura Linnan (linnan@email.unc.edu) if you have questions or suggestions about this process.

Kathy Anderson, PhD, associate dean for information technology and project planning, is a key member of the academic planning team. She and her team are working on classroom updates to support classes that will be taught synchronously online and in-person. Aiya Williams, MS, instructional technology manager, and members of the instructional design team, are developing high-quality training resources to address specific course needs and support faculty instructors for all types of teaching modes. The Keep Teaching website will continue to be an important source of information, resources and support for all faculty.

Gillings-specific planning protocols

Gillings Infrastructure Planning Group

Gillings Infrastructure Planning Group Members

Taya Jackson Scott, EdD, vice dean, and an infrastructure planning group chaired by Brent Wishart, facilities manager, are leading efforts to develop a version of the UNC Roadmap that is tailored to the unique needs of Gillings faculty, staff and students. It will include details about how we will operationalize plans to make our school as safe as possible—a healthy place to work and learn—for all. We will benefit enormously from the amazing public health experts in our school who have been sharing their expertise about COVID-19, aerosol-based infections, social distancing approaches, and return to safe and healthy work with UNC-Chapel Hill leaders, state health leaders, and organizations around the world.

Planning for on campus and remote work going forward. Not all faculty and staff members will be comfortable returning to campus by early August. See the May 29 message from the University’s Office of Human Resources (OHR) on Updated Work and Leave Provisions as of June 1, 2020, for current return-to-campus work guidelines. The Carolina Together website is a repository for information about fall 2020 operations, and it will be updated regularly.

Department Chairs, supervisors and HR representatives will be working together with faculty and staff members to clarify how and when people can best return safely to work on site. Some jobs can be done remotely, and our remote experiences are making more people comfortable with this mode of work. Other jobs may require people to be on site. Hybrid arrangements may include splitting time between remote and on-campus work for some people. We want to provide choices for faculty, staff and students, whenever possible, while working within required state, UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill OHR guidelines. This is an unprecedented situation. There is no playbook. Gillings is about people and community.

We are adapting our buildings to meet the challenges of keeping people safe. Here are just a few of those changes.

  • There will be changes in how people enter and exit buildings and classrooms to permit social distancing. Expect new signage and directional information.
  • Public spaces will be cleaned more often. Classrooms will be cleaned between classes, necessitating longer times between classes.
  • Numbers of people allowed in classrooms will be limited. Some classes likely will have both residential and remote students. This will help to keep instructors and students safe and accommodate the needs of international and other students who are unable to be on campus.
  • Numbers of people permitted in bathrooms will be limited.
  • There will be restrictions on activities we used to take for granted, e.g., large gatherings in the atrium, buffet-style food service.
  • Stay tuned for more information as planning and preparations continue.

We are interdependent in new ways

In a world in which one person’s sneeze can cause hundreds of people to become ill, our interconnectedness and interdependence are matters of life and death. Students, faculty members and staff members have roles to play in ensuring their and other people’s safety. The pandemic requires each of us to care for ourselves and others’ health and safety by washing hands frequently, wearing masks in most indoor settings, practicing social distancing, and staying home when sick. Without a vaccine or curative treatment, our behaviors are lifelines for safety. John Donne’s words that “no man is an island” have never been truer.

Getting comfortable with uncertainty

Many people have more questions than we have answers for today. A cadre of people in the school are working relentlessly to plan, prepare and implement processes and actions to keep every person who comes to Gillings as safe as possible while enabling our research, academic and business operations to resume on campus. In some cases, we simply cannot make decisions until we receive guidance from university or system leaders. In other cases, we must hear from our community before making decisions that affect a lot of people. We appreciate your input and your patience as we work together to translate and apply state, system and university standards.

Carl Sagan quote from in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan quote from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

We are living with great uncertainties, and the nature of this situation is exacerbating stress. While we will do everything possible to protect the safety and well-being of our community, there are many unknowns. The virus will determine many aspects of what we can do, and when we might have to change course. There is no completely risk-free zone, but the behavioral, process, policy and building changes that are being implemented at Gillings, and at UNC-Chapel Hill, more generally, should lead to a much safer environment.  I appreciate Carl Sagan’s reminder that certainty is elusive. We will be indefatigable in creating the safest possible environment, but every faculty member, staff member, student and visitor must contribute. Every day, there will be balancing acts to maintain safety while serving the needs of Gillings people and between individual autonomy and community. We are accountable to one another.

Stay tuned, stay engaged

We all have a responsibility to stay on top of information—from CDC, NCDHHS, the UNC System, chancellor, provost, OHR, and vice chancellor for research. There is a lot of information from outside and inside the school. We will do our best to curate when we can, but we cannot provide the Gillings interpretation for all these sources. We are committed to coordinating information across Gillings.

In the coming weeks, look for communications from the chancellor and other University leaders and from me and other Gillings School leaders. The University’s Coronavirus Updates site is updated regularly with communications and guidance from the chancellor and other university leaders, and our school’s Coronavirus Information Portal contains links to this page. Gillings leaders, including me, will write regularly to address concerns as we get closer to the time when more people are returning to work on campus.

Always feel free to ask questions of those you look to for information and guidance in your department or unit and those mentioned in this letter. There also is an email address you can use to send questions or comments to our School’s COVID-19 Working Group: sph-covid19-info@unc.edu.  In the next week or so, we will launch a “Three COVID Questions” series via email and social media to share key information quickly on timely issues and decisions. Messages will be very short (unlike this one), with links to fuller explanations and guidance as available. We hope this will facilitate the flow of complex, multi-faceted information. If you have questions you would like us to address in this or other venues, please send an email to: sph-covid19-info@unc.edu. We will work through questions as quickly as possible.

This is a very challenging time that is changing how we how we work, learn, and live in community with one another. We will get through it if we work together. Be well and stay healthy.

Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, MPH
Dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor