Reopening Campuses Is Not Working — and Important Voices Aren't Being Heard, Writes UNC Professor

PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during the pandemic

Dr. Dana Griffin
Photo: Dr. Dana Griffin

Dr. Dana Griffin is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also serves as the Dean’s Fellow for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She teaches across three programs in the School of Ed – Human Development and Family Studies, School Counseling and Applied Developmental Science and Special Education. Dr. Griffin also researches the role of school counselors in addressing the academic, social and mental health needs of students through school-family-community partnerships and parent involvement, focusing specifically on populations who are often underserved in schools and considered at risk for academic failure —Black and low-income students of color. She lives in Durham with her husband and two children. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.

We are underestimating the power of this virus.

No matter what precautions colleges and universities take, reopening campuses is not working.

UNC spent a lot of money, time and effort to keep students, faculty and staff safe ahead of their return, but outbreaks still occurred. This is happening at other schools.

There’s a lot of negative press around UNC’s reopening and switch to remote learning. Other universities have since closed their campuses due to growing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks, and they haven’t received the same press UNC has. Perhaps it’s because UNC was one of the first schools to try reopening.

What’s missing from this story is the individual voices of people who have been affected by UNC’s decisions. I also don’t want our students, our families or our alumni thinking that students aren’t receiving high-quality instruction in this remote environment [via online technologies]. The side that’s also not being told is the immense preparation that went into this school year for students.

It wasn’t easy to get ready for this upcoming school year, but faculty and staff worked hard to get it done. My colleagues showed 100% dedication to this transition, even as they had to face their own worries around family and friends; even as they faced personal health issues; even as they transitioned to being the childcare providers and teachers to their own children; even as they were concerned about their own college-aged children on campuses.

Many of us are nine-month employees, too. We weren’t paid to work through the summer. But we wanted to help our students. It was stressful. It was frustrating. It was anxiety-inducing.

We had to take several things into account for a class to be taught in person. For example, we had to make sure there was space in a building for class to be held where students could be six feet apart.

Some classes were set up to be hybrid, others were to be completely in-person and some remote. I requested to teach my classes online.

As a Black woman, knowing that the rates of contracting COVID-19 are higher in the Black community and the death rates are higher, I did not feel comfortable teaching face to face. I wanted to teach face to face, but I just knew I wouldn’t be effective as a teacher because I would be so worried and concerned about health. Even now in my everyday life, if I hear someone cough, I freak out.

I had to stay healthy for my mom, too. She lives alone and has COPD [a lung condition that carries a higher risk of severe illness from COVID]. If anything happens to her, I’m the child who livest closest to her.

Earlier this summer, I visited campus to pick up a couple teaching materials from my office. It was very isolating, and quiet. It felt weird to be there. I knew I would never feel comfortable teaching if the halls were full of people walking by.

Dr. Dana Griffin
Dr. Dana Griffin

So I’m teaching two courses remotely this semester: one of graduate students and one with undergraduates who meet one and two times each week. This is my 13th year as a professor. But for all intents and purposes, it feels like my first year as a professor. I have never taught in a remote environment nor have I taught during a pandemic.

During my first class with the undergraduate students, just after UNC announced it would be fully remote, I checked in with them. They were hurting. You have to wear masks everywhere on campus. There were no social gatherings with other students. Every day we’d get notifications on our phones about new COVID-19 clusters.

Our check in wasn’t something new. I always do this with my students throughout the semester, especially closer to exams. The difference is the COVID-19 pandemic, and UNC was all over the news. It is stress like never before. They’re usually worried about having to do papers or final exams. This is a different type of stress: “Am I going to be sick?”; “Oh, now I can't live here — I have to go home"; “I'm in the process of moving and I still have to take classes"; "We just got here and now we have to leave.”

College students are dealing with a lot. I don't know what their home lives are like either, and I told my students that. If they can't do the work or they don't have access to internet or technology, I told them to let me know and I will work with them where they are, because I want to be sure that those who don't have access also have the same opportunities as those who do. Some of my colleagues even discussed raising money for students who didn’t have the resources to move off campus or learn remotely.

My 18-year-old daughter recently moved back to Duke University for her second year. I sent her back even though I’m afraid. She wanted to go back, and I can only hope that she’s making good decisions and staying isolated. What Duke did differently than UNC was they did not bring everybody back to campus. They’re a smaller school, so they were able to do things a bit differently. Each student has a single dorm room to themselves, too. Things seem to be going well so far. But I told my daughter, “Don’t be fooled that Duke doesn’t have outbreaks yet.” We still need to be cautious about how we behave.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for international students or parents who are far away from their kids. If my daughter's school wasn’t so close to me, I probably would not have sent her back. But if she gets sick, I can be there in 15 minutes.

As a parent, I understand we are entrusting leadership to make the best decisions for our children. However, I agree with colleagues who have criticized the lack of diversity in UNC’s leadership. Including diverse voices at the table is important because then we are more likely to pay attention to the needs of our diverse student body, such as first-generation students, Black students, rural students and more. What about kids who can’t afford to move back home? Or who don’t have a place to go? [Editor's note: UNC is allowing some students to request to stay on campus, but only about 20 percent]. During this pandemic, we must find a better way to meet their needs.

Still, let’s not forget those at UNC who have worked tirelessly to make this school year possible for our students: our IT department, our dean and associate deans for supporting faculty and so many others.

It has been incredibly time-consuming and overwhelming to transition to this new learning environment. The only thing that has made it survivable has been the support from my colleagues and knowing that our students are receiving the same knowledge and expertise from us, just in a different way.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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