CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill gained national attention in August when officials reversed reopening plans one week after the fall semester began.
Despite months of planning, COVID-19 cases escalated rapidly after students returned to campus. A week after classes resumed, more than 170 students and employees tested positive for COVID-19, hundreds more were in isolation and quarantine and new COVID-19 clusters were announced daily.
The ABC11 I-Team filed an open records request and obtained emails sent between top university officials in the months leading up to the reopening and the days before in-person classes were abruptly canceled.
Emails and testimony reveal health officials voiced concerns over reopening plans for months and students and faculty recommendations went unimplemented as officials executed a reopening plan largely created before cases spiked throughout the state.
'Carolina is leading in COVID-19 response' was the subject of the first email ABC11 received between UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and officials back in April. UNC, like many universities across the country, had switched to virtual learning and were just beginning to envision what re-opening plans would entail in August.
Providing antibody testing for all students was briefly discussed between UNC System leaders and Senator Richard Burr early in May.
But, weeks later, UNC-Chapel Hill's first draft of its reopening plan made no mention of testing for all students. Instead, the plan outlined daily self-symptom checks, mandated masks and limited group gatherings.
At the end of May, email exchanges between UNC and Orange County health officials reveal county officials tried to set up a "good working relationship" and set up time for "crucial dialogue."
A spokesperson for Orange County confirmed collaboration between the entities didn't begin until May.
Emails exchanged between the Orange County Medical Director Erica Pettigrew and Kenneth Pittman, UNC Director of Campus Health, in late May show the two had spoken through Zoom. At the time, dorms were already identified for quarantining students, some staff members were trained on contact tracing and officials were evaluating the use of rapid tests.
When the 'Roadmap for Fall 2020' was presented to faculty it sparked some concern.
"That announcement caught us by surprise because most faculty had not been privy to any of the conversations that had taken place before that," said Dr. Jay Smith, a UNC history professor and vice president of the local American Association of University Professors chapter.
Faculty in the Institute for Arts and Humanity wrote in one email on May 22: "The current plan puts the value of human life to the side, subordinating public health to a robust influx of revenue and accepting without note that the University plan will certainly cause the spread of COVID19 and death."
In early June, many top faculty had questions and conveyed a lack of transparency and collaboration in the development of plans, according to emails.
"Many faculty are asking why the University has not announced a plan for regularly testing students, staff and faculty," Dr. Lloyd Kramer, former chair of the faculty, wrote to Provost Bob Blouin and others on June 7 ahead of a Faculty Executive Committee meeting.
The email included many concerns from head staff members including testing and procedures concerning classroom spacing and cleaning.
"I would just add that not having this kind of information is making it incredibly difficult to convince instructors that it is safe to return to campus. More information and transparency would be a big help to rebuild the trust necessary for employees to feel safe," one professor wrote in a list of questions.
Another professor wrote: "How are those decisions being made - who is making them and who among you is properly trained to make them? And shouldn't we all be making them together?"
"The administrative leaders, I think, were listening but the concern was that there was a tendency to listen to the epidemiologist and the scientists but not to take into consideration as much other factors, ethical factors, maybe the diversity of the student and staff communities that might be adversely (affected) by reopening," Kramer told the ABC11 I-Team.
Students also conveyed frustrations over leaders not implementing their recommendations.
A new student group, the Commission of Campus Equality and Student Equity, was created during the pandemic to address the impact of UNC's reopening decision on minority students.
"We condemn the University's lack of acknowledgment and actionable response to the thousands of students, facilities workers, and faculty members that have expressed grave life-threatening concerns regarding an in-person return," one of the commission's resolution letter said.
Over the summer, the group made a number of recommendations to leaders, including all courses be offered virtually and limiting on-campus housing to those with the greatest need.
"As we dialogue with undergraduate students throughout our most marginalized Carolina communities, there is a consistent consensus from both our peers and residents of the town of Chapel Hill-they are scared, fearful, and distrustful," one of the commission's resolution letters said.
Greear Webb, a UNC sophomore and member on the commission said he felt the university was responsive to input but frustration came over a lack of acting on the input.
"They seemed like they were listening, but they didn't implement it and now look where we are," Webb said. "It was disappointing."
Kramer said the faculty committee did conduct surveys between faculty on comfort level coming back to campus and those responses were fairly evenly divided.
"The problem was there was no way to mitigate those concerns without abandoning in-person teaching entirely. There was going to be that problem if we taught in person. That's why in some sense, the communication could only go so far. We just couldn't predict the future and I think that was a frustration shared on both sides," he said.
Kramer said one of the biggest frustrations the faculty expressed was wanting more details on what factors would set an 'exit ramp' in motion.
Dr. Mimi Chapman, who took over Kramer's role mid-summer, said those specifics were never given.
Throughout the summer, campus leadership continued to work on an 'off-ramp.' In emails, officials said they would consider local hospitalization numbers and testing turnaround times.
At the beginning of July, Guskiewicz wrote to campus leaders: "Currently, our health care leaders and public health/infection disease experts are not calling for an 'off-ramp' based on available information or that their systems/ operations are in any way overwhelmed her in Chapel Hill and Orange County."
That was as Orange County health officials began to point to some 'major concerns.'
"We are stretched thin as it is," wrote Orange County health director Erica Pettigrew in anticipation of the resources and assistance needed when students caused the county's population to increase by 25 percent.
Just one month before most students were expected to arrive back on campus, Pettigrew highlighted her concerns in an email to Blouin on July 1.
"OCHD remains very concerned that the capacity for quarantined students will run out quickly. Plan B is urgently needed," she wrote.
Her other main concerns included lack of contract tracers, no plan for mass testing clusters, no plan for mass testing dorms, and increasing complaints from university employees who were told to get COVID-19 testing from their primary care doctor.
At the time of the email, six university housekeepers had tested positive, 12 students were positive and cases were already linked to bars and fraternity parties. A week later, 37 student-athletes, coaches and athletic staff would be positive for COVID-19 after resuming workouts on campus.
Pettigrew's concerns continued.
"I was extremely alarmed to learn tonight that graduate students and faculty dieticians are being sent to the isolation and quarantine dorms to personally deliver meals and medications without proper precautions in place," she wrote to Blouin on July 10.
She described COVID-19 positive students interacting without masks with graduate students tasked with delivering meals, actions she said were "not in alignment" with plans the University shared with the health department and "not in compliance with public health guidance."
"This problematic situation highlights two concerns we've voiced from the beginning -- the need for review of detailed plans as well as testing problems," she concluded.
Following emails show campus leaders discussed and reviewed the protocols on food delivery to isolated students.
As local health officials pointed to continual concerns, the UNC Board of Governors called for financial impact reports from all chancellors. Emails show the Board of Governors were consulting on the financial impact of closing campuses and canceling fall sports while requesting each chancellor reduce budgets by 25 percent and 50 percent.
"This is not a request, this is a directive, and I want each of you to respond to this email confirming that you understand that you are to take no action until the board and new President have met to make a decision about how to proceed," wrote Randy Ramsey, UNC Board of Governors Chairman on July 14.
Many faculty members expressed confusion over whether UNC-Chapel Hill officials had the ultimate power in choosing whether students returned to campus.
"What was very unclear and what became more clear is the extent to which the chancellor and provost were making decisions within constraints from the UNC System Office and so overtime that became clear that they could not really make their own decisions. They could make decisions within confines but not an all or nothing decision about to reopen or not reopen," Chapman said. "That was a constant negotiation that was going on apparently and so I think that was somewhat confusing to everyone because the system was not necessarily taking responsibility for that."
UNC-Chapel Hill officials did not respond to the I-Team's request to clarify who had the authority to make the final decision to bring students back to campus.
"The Board of Governors did not take action to mandate reopening of UNC campuses for the fall semester nor overrule any campus reopening decisions," a spokesperson for the UNC system wrote in an email.
The spokesperson also pointed to a statement previously made by Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey: "In a large and diverse university system like ours, there is a great deal of shared responsibility, consultation, and collaboration. Since President Hans came on board on August 1st, he has had the support of our board and the full authority to work with our chancellors to make the decisions to modify or adapt operations."
As the month progressed, emails show campus leaders continued to move forward with reopening plans by communicating with county health officials on contract tracing efforts and testing capacity.
"The numbers were going up all over the country. That was not the assumption when the roadmap came out in May so the assumptions it was based on were changing and so that was a big concerns for the faculty," Chapman said.
In July, North Carolina was labeled in the 'red zone' for cases by the White House Coronavirus Task Force and reporting a positivity rate of almost above 10 percent.
"It was pretty clear that we were heading into uncharted waters with this pandemic by July and August. And we wrote petitions and we sent emails to the administrators and we organized rallies and we had a town hall and we couldn't get through to them," Smith said.
Still, the overall plan of offering in-person classes did not waver, according to email exchanges.
"We did not fully understand the way in which we could be overwhelmed by the spread of the disease once it started and I regret that we could not predict that more accurately," Kramer said.
However, emails reveal the OCHD did know the extent that the community could be overwhelmed by COVID-19 and warned UNC leaders.
The true extent of OCHD's concerns boiled over days before the first round of students was expected to start moving in. Guskiewicz, Blouin and Vice-Chancellor George Battle received an email from Orange County health officials recommending students start virtually.
"I fear it will not be enough to contain the full campus community upon return for the Fall Semester," the email said. "If students begin to move back on campus next week, we could quickly become a hot spot for new cases as thousands of students from all across the country/world merge onto the UNC Campus."
Before the semester even began, cases increased by 22 percent between 18 and 22-year-olds. Health officials pointed to continual issues with contact tracing and testing, receiving mounting concerned emails and a lack of planning regarding public buses.
"To keep the town operational we could potentially create several clusters of cases from one single bus ride," the officials wrote to campus leaders on July 31.
The Orange County Health Department declined an on-camera interview but when asked why this recommendation was not made earlier, a spokesperson said: "The UNC System made a statement that the local universities needed recommendations from their local health officials if they needed to deviate from the system reopening plans."
A week after OCHD sent the letter, Guskiewicz addressed the community once the contents of the letter were leaked.
"We reviewed their recommendations, and carefully analyzed our current status and the steps we were actively taking to de-densify our campus. We believe we have made significant progress towards aligning with the OCHD's general recommendations and considerations," he wrote.
Classroom occupancy reduced to 30 percent, residential living reduced to 64 percent and collaboration with transportation partners was mentioned in the chancellor's announcement.
"I also reiterated that we believe we are well prepared for the start of the Fall semester and we will continue to track trends that could lead us to recommend a modification to our plans. Soon after, I discussed this matter with the UNC System and we were advised by the UNC System to stay the course with our current plan," Guskiewicz wrote of his discussions with OCHD.
Smith said leaders not disclosing the recommendation they received from the health department was a 'serious error.'
"If you look at this from a strictly moral and strictly public health perspective, that incident in late July one could argue provided the chancellor and the provost had all of the opening they needed to side with public health officials and to side with common sense against the stated position of the BOG Board of Governors," Smith said referring to the OCHD letter sent on July 29.
Smith said not sharing the letter was a tipping point for him and other faculty. He was one of the dozens of tenured UNC professors who published an open letter to undergraduate students urging them to stay home.
"It was clear that they were not interested in listening to reason at that point and so they weren't going to listen to us either," Smith said. "So, we had to appeal to a constituency outside the administration- students, and their parents to try to get them on our side."
The letter, published in the Charlotte Observer, pointed to 'faulty assumptions' the UNC plan was based on and stated it was not safe for students to live on campus.
UNC continued with plans to welcome students back on campus.
On August 3, thousands of students begin moving back to campus, one week before school started. Days later, a video surfaced showing dozen of people coming out of a home without masks.
As classes started, one professor wrote to faculty: "We are now 2 days into the fall semester and overall everything seems to be working fairly well."
That same day, Orange County health director Quintana Stewart emailed Guskiewicz and Blouin: "We are on the brink of a cluster in Granville Towers."
By the end of the week, Granville Towers and Ehringhaus Community have COVID-19 clusters.
Emails exchanged in the first week of classes show top university officials proceeded in a somewhat routine way. Speeches were planned for various faculty, new COVID-19 signage was created but in the background, the financial strain peeked in.
In the middle of the first week, UNC System President Peter Hans alerted all chancellors to manage expenses and operations carefully while giving attention to a few key areas, including capital construction and salary changes.
Over the weekend, daily cases of new positive cases climbed and two more clusters were announced. News of a party held over the weekend was sent to officials and a special faculty executive meeting was announced for the following week.
Housing data shared in emails show 20-31 students canceled their housing contracts within the first weekend and the university received many calls inquiring about cancellations.
By Monday, August 17, 349 students were in campus quarantine and another 177 in isolation.
By 1 p.m., campus officials were reviewing a draft of an email that would eventually alert the campus hours later that in-person classes would be canceled.
The emails ABC11 obtained do not show the factors weighed or the conversations between officials leading up to this decision.
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger sent an email to Blouin and Guskiewicz at 2 p.m. requesting the university take action against the increase in cases and "toll that the re-opening of the UNC campus" had on the community.
Hemminger called the situation an "avoidable" outcome and a "direct result of the decisions made by university administrators."
"The vacuum left by the university's decision to take minimal responsibility for students when they are off-campus has meant that the need for monitoring and reporting has fallen to peers and neighbors, which is neither appropriate nor fair," the mayor wrote.
Hemminger stressed the need to work together and request the university provide more updates to its COVID-19 dashboard and pursue the off-ramp to virtual learning.
Hours later, the news broke of the university canceling in-person classes.
"As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation. As we have always said, the health and safety of our campus community is paramount, and we will continue to modify and adapt our plan when necessary," Guskiewicz and Blouin wrote in the alert.
Faculty said they were not aware of the decision before the campus-wide announcement came.
"I think the management of the immediate aftermath of that announcement here at the campus level showed that they have not thought this process through," Smith said. "It seemed to us, to many of us anyway, that our administration too was in crisis. And, you know, that they were making decisions on the fly without a lot of forethought."
That evening, Guskiewicz gave an interview to WRAL. In an email reviewing his talking points, he was told to avoid discussing that this has been a 'trying time' and that the roadmap was based on assumptions from spring and summer.
"We will not apologize for trying," Leslie Minton, the associate director of UNC Media relations wrote to Guskiewicz.
Months after the pivot, UNC is trying to once again plan ahead.
"University leaders are taking a detailed and thorough approach to planning, and Chancellor Guskiewicz is working closely with the Campus and Community Advisory Committee, Roadmap Implementation Team, content experts across the University, and a number of local and state partners through the process," a spokesperson for the university wrote in an email.
In September, UNC announced the creation of the Campus & Community Advisory Committee, a group made up of faculty, students and Chapel Hill community members. The group is tasked with providing recommendations to officials for the spring semester.
Many faculty and students are hopeful the creation of the committee will lead to a more inclusive planning process.
"I think the chancellor and provost certainly heard the faculty, staff and students very clearly that we wanted more input before decisions were made, so at least to be able to give recommendations and to have all the information to sort of know who were working on things in details," said Chapman, a co-chair for the committee.
She said the collaboration between different groups has been positive and useful.
"That makes a difference in terms of thinking about all the different ramifications of any different decision and we all kind of recognize that we all rise and fall together so we can't make things good for faculty but not good for students or good for business owners and not good for some other group," she said.
Webb said he and other students are still very concerned about the lack of a wide-scale testing plan.
"Until that plan is put in place, students are really saying that we don't feel safe coming back to campus. We don't view it as any different circumstance than where we were in March," he said. "This virus is still very prominent. This virus is still very dangerous and deadly. Students, the most important stakeholders of the university, don't want to be thrust back into an unhealthy environment."
Chapman said the provost does have a small working group focused on testing and is evaluating what testing options might be adopted.
Kramer pointed to testing as one of the university's weaknesses in the fall.
Chapman said, while UNC is involving more voices this time around, she hopes the overarching UNC System is also considering things differently too for the spring.
"Recognizing that each of the UNC System campuses has different needs and will be in different places in the spring, some counties may have low viral loads and some may have high viral load and that those campuses need to be able to respond to their conditions and this can't be a one size fit all and it can't be a thing where so many decisions have to be negotiated that it undermines trust in the process," Chapman said.
A spokesperson for Orange County wrote in an email that the health department is looking to gather more details about campus living before students return to campus again.
"I think that what needs to be considered is what is realistic about the progress of the disease. We kept assuming that it was going to get better in the spring. That was sort of the assumption it would be a decline in the fall, that assumption was not correct so I think what we have to think about as we plan for the spring is whatever predictions we might make are likely to be inaccurate in some way because the situation always goes beyond what we can expect," Kramer said.
While decisions about the semester are being made, the university announced last week the semester will be delayed two weeks and there will not be a traditional Spring Break.
UNC-Chapel Hill officials declined an on-camera interview and did not directly answer all of the I-Team's questions but did provide links to past announcements and videos to various planning meetings.
The I-Team has requested emails between UNC System Board of Governors over this same time period. These emails have still not been released nearly two months after the request.