Answering your COVID-19 questions: an open letter to faculty from Chancellor Everts and Interim Provost Norris

Dear Members of the Faculty,

Over the past few days, we have heard from many of you– in the form of several Faculty Senate resolutions as well as in response to the direct messages to faculty and the broad-based messages sent to campus. Please know we appreciate your passion about the myriad issues you have raised with us as well as your messages of support. We also appreciate and understand the concerns you have shared with us.

In this open letter to all faculty, we want to address your concerns and answer your questions. We acknowledge not all of our answers can be complete at this point in time, or comforting, and for that we apologize. We also apologize that it sometimes takes longer than we would like to have full and complete answers for you as we navigate very complex, ever-evolving circumstances.

As we write this, we recognize the pandemic we have all been weathering is creating prolonged stress and strain on you, even as you moved from a rapid-paced pivot to online course delivery in March to a statewide stay-at-home order and now a sustained period of uncertainty about the coming weeks and months. In the midst of all this, President Roper announced UNC System institutions would return to on-campus instruction in the fall.

Understandably, this creates anxiety, concern and added insecurity for many faculty members, while many of our students welcome the thoughts of returning– or coming– to campus in a few weeks.

Even as we plan for re-opening, we recognize that should we see a progression of the virus, we may have to shift to online instruction again at any time. While we plan for this extreme, we also must plan for what a return to campus might look like- with a range of options from face-to-face, to hybrid, to fully online. Each new public health and governmental development necessitates that we quickly determine and share what it means for our campus. We know these changes can have a whiplash effect on members of our campus community. This is a messy process, complicated by many factors beyond our control. The continuing work of national, state and local public health authorities to maintain the safety of the public must be accounted for in our processes, and we cannot get ahead of the experts in the field. In addition, the almost daily guidance issued by the UNC System Office, designed to provide a uniform approach to ensure the well-being of tens of thousands of faculty, staff and students across the state, are also a big part of our planning. Appalachian is committed to maintaining best practices at all times, and especially as we plan for a return of our campus community during this challenging season.

While a lot of work is being done– and we do know more today about the virus and have better techniques for preventing the spread of infection– there is still much that is unknown. We recognize it is frustrating not to have concrete answers in front of us, and also that many of you want more input in the process. As Chair of the Faculty, the Provost sits on the Chancellor’s Cabinet, which is an advisory body (and not a voting body). Through information provided by the Dean’s Council and Provost’s Council, the Provost represents the faculty on the Chancellor's Recovery Strategy Leadership Team, in their planning process. In addition, we have begun meeting with each of the 43 academic departments to hear directly from you, and have greatly appreciated our time with the departments we have met with so far. These meetings have been positive and very productive, and we have welcomed the invitations to come back and meet with departments again.

Some of you have asked if the two of us are teaching, or are willing to teach face-to-face in the classrooms next semester. The answer is “yes,” and we have let the deans in our respective home colleges know of our availability to do so. Additionally, three other members of the Chancellor’s Cabinet have regular teaching engagements with different colleges across the institution.

Although we have received a number of questions, resolutions, and comments thus far, the issues you have raised with us follow a few key themes. As our goal is transparency as well as efficiency, particularly during these challenging times, we will address them below.

How much control will I, as a faculty member, have to set my own schedule and course delivery method?

As many of you will recall, we began asking you through your deans and department chairs to share what your teaching preferences for fall may be, beginning with a straw poll in March, with revisions in May and June to reflect the most current preferences. Since that time, we have been running simulations, looking at classroom capacities, assessing all available space (including administrative space) for additional classroom use, and working to balance the course delivery options (face-to-face, fully online, hybrid) to meet the needs of each academic discipline and department- all while providing the best possible academic experience for our students. While we worked on this balance, we did not want to have most of our classes online, so we looked at percentages but did not set a firm benchmark, as that would not have been fair or practical. (Some programs that inherently present different risk issues– for example: singing, playing wind instruments, physical education activity classes that require direct contact with others, etc.– will require different strategies for preventing infection than a lecture-based course) As an institution, we excel at face-to-face learning, and it’s ideally what our students and many of our faculty prefer. Over the last two weeks, each college completed and submitted its preferred course schedules, which we reviewed and approved. We were able to meet the majority of the preferences of faculty who shared their preferred teaching modes.

Yesterday, we began our meetings with academic departments and will continue to schedule these individually with each department for as long as you find them helpful. Of the 43 academic departments, thus far we have met with or scheduled meetings with 24. We are looking forward to continued conversations with you, because your voices are important. The questions and responses submitted to the Project Management Implementation Team (PMIT) are being vetted by the 26+ working committees across campus, and while that process can take time, it’s because we are diligently working to systematically assess, adjust, and respond. Rather than seeing individual responses, you will see comprehensive responses to these questions and submissions in the PMIT weekly email updates- not because we don’t want to take time to hear from or interact with each of you, but because such comprehensive responses are a good way to ensure that the information is disseminated broadly and consistently. It is very difficult and also critical to maintain consistency during times of crisis and even more difficult to maintain as circumstances change rapidly- hence our regular, and simultaneous updates to our entire campus, including incoming students and parents, to ensure everyone hears the same information. We will continue to work on consistency in our communications.

What is the process for faculty to request adjustments to course delivery and to what extent will my requests be met?

Many of you are aware there was much discussion of how to request course delivery adjustments and how to manage them at the June 22, 2020 Faculty Senate meeting. To ensure that staff and faculty who have high-risk health conditions are given special consideration when asked to return to on-campus work, we developed a form to help us assess and address these concerns.

As Jacqui Bergman shared last week, Academic Affairs will meet to discuss the special accommodations process with department chairs today, and will follow up with faculty next week. More detailed FAQs about the special considerations process will also be posted on the Office of Human Resources COVID-19 website early next week. In the meantime, we want to be sure you have a few key points of information:

  • The process is managed in the Office of Human Resources because that office has established procedures for receiving and protecting employee health information, as they do in managing requests for medical leaves of absence, workers compensation claims and the university’s disability benefits. We also wanted the process centralized to ensure consistent and equitable consideration for every faculty and staff member who needs it. The process was established to comply with public health and UNC System guidance, and because we will always do everything that we can to ensure the safety of all faculty and staff.
  • We will not share any health information reported on the form. That information is confidential, legally protected and cannot be disclosed to your department chair, supervisor or anyone else without you providing your express permission.
  • There is not a specific deadline to complete the form, but if you are scheduled to teach on campus for fall semester and need consideration for a qualifying reason, we encourage you to submit your request as soon as possible to allow time for all requests to be considered and appropriate adjustments made as far in advance of the semester as possible.

This virus is dangerous. Why are we bringing students back to campus when there is no vaccine?

Like every institution in the UNC System, Appalachian is preparing, in accordance with UNC System expectations and our educational mission, to return our students, faculty and staff to campus. We expect this will happen, according to our calendar, in August. We also understand that our control over this situation is limited. We are heavily engaged in System and state-level discussions, and zealously represent the concerns of our faculty and our institution in these discussions. Ultimately, the circumstances on our campus are one of 17 institutions our System and state leadership are taking into consideration. We cannot answer the questions about what exact set of circumstances will lead to the decision to move to all online learning as we did in March, and we recognize our state and the evolution of the pandemic were in a very different place then. We must focus on the areas we can control. So, we are preparing for every set of circumstances we can anticipate. We recognize and apologize for not being able to answer every question with certainty. Our intent is to provide clarity, while also trying to plan for multiple scenarios in which many outcomes are dependent on many others.

While health and safety are our top priorities, as the largest employer in the region, we cannot ignore that moving to all online instruction will most certainly have detrimental economic and emotional impacts on the lives of our students, employees and citizens of the Town of Boone and the surrounding region. Considering these factors does not mean we are prioritizing money over lives- not to consider them would be irresponsible.

The responsibility of “reopening” the equivalent of a small city and the impact doing so has on the life safety of our campus community and the citizens of the Town of Boone, Watauga County and beyond weighs heavily. We know the impact and implications are tremendous. We know we cannot always foresee the consequences tomorrow of our actions today, but we are working with every available resource to mitigate the dangers we face. We are happy to talk through this with you in more detail in our departmental meetings. We are very fortunate to have strong, years-long relationships with our local public health agency and our local hospital. The many years of planning, preparation and work with them in response to emergencies gives us great confidence in their abilities to manage the medical resources available, and utilize their reinforcements as necessary. We are keenly aware that it is critical to manage the number of positive cases so our medical system does not become overwhelmed. Working together with our local and regional health care partners is critical, and we are in constant communication with them.

What is the plan for COVID-19 testing?

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their testing guidance. At this time, they do not recommend entry testing of all returning students, faculty and staff at Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) because to date it is unknown whether entry testing on a broad scale would reduce transmission of the virus more than the use of other infection control measures (e.g., adequate social distancing, correct use of cloth face covering, frequent hand washing, enhanced cleaning and disinfection).

The CDC does, however, state, “in areas with moderate to substantial community transmission where resources allow, local health officials and IHEs may consider testing some or all asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff who have no known exposure (e.g., students in congregate housing such as residence halls) to identify outbreaks and inform control measures.” We are exploring what measures may be feasible in this regard, and will continue communications to campus as decisions are made.

How is Appalachian supporting people of color and especially Black students, faculty and staff?

We recognize the virus disproportionately affects people of color, and the pandemic adds particular strain to our Black faculty– as well as students and staff– during a time at which our nation, our Boone community and our university has seen a rise in public protests and forums as we grapple with the painful realities of institutionalized racism. Black Lives Matter, and we must demonstrate they not only matter, but are a valuable and important aspect of our actions, systems and processes. Let us both be clear- we as your leaders oppose racism and are committed to ensuring that each and every Black faculty member, staff and student at Appalachian State feels welcome, supported, and valued as a part of this campus community. We know we have some hard work in front of us as a campus community, to educate one another, to heal and to grow, but we will do so and do so together.

As each member of the Chancellor’s Cabinet explores their area’s actions, we realize we must build more pathways for communicating the existing resources we have in place– as well as the new ones we are developing– to support our Black faculty, staff and students. University Communications has expanded support to Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Willie Fleming, to help increase the visibility and accessibility of the important diversity and inclusion work underway and forthcoming, as well as resources for Black faculty, staff and students. Here’s a link to some of the resources available so you can find them now.

In addition, we know that as a campus we have a role to play in the nationwide conversations about police brutality towards Black people. Key to this work on our campus is App State Police Chief Andy Stephenson and the development of our campus’ police academy. Chief Stephenson regularly shared during his job interviews and first year on campus that policing must change and better recruitment and education were key to reform on our campus and in communities beyond Boone. We are making a difference with our program; App State Police are building community and learning through programs like the police student advisory group. Chief Stephenson is whole-heartedly committed to changing the way police everywhere practice their profession and wants to build strong relationships with Black stakeholders in the Appalachian Community. He participated in the recent demonstrations on King Street in support of the protestors and is actively engaged in campus conversations to improve the way that the police interact with our Black citizens.

I have concerns about student behavior. What is the university doing to ensure students will wear masks and behave in accordance with other safety practices?

Every day, we are learning more about this virus and about ways we can protect our community. Our teams in Student Affairs, in particular, are deeply engaged in how to work with our students on normalizing safe behavior, and reducing unsafe behavior. Education and training modules are in development, public health campaigns are underway, and plans for utilizing peer-to-peer opportunities, clubs and service organizations, residence halls education and training are in development. We know from the evidence-based sexual assault prevention, drug and alcohol abuse prevention and suicide prevention work we do that these methods are not a guarantee, but we also know they make a difference in student behavior.

The State of North Carolina, the UNC System, the Town of Boone and Appalachian State University are taking seriously the public health guidance, and are requiring face coverings. As most of you know, we are supplying three washable, reusable face coverings to each faculty, staff and student member of our community. Signage and other communications to campus will reinforce our face covering policy. Additionally, we ask our faculty set the expectation that the university takes this policy seriously by setting classroom expectations and including the policy in your syllabi. Unfortunately, the use of face coverings is becoming politicized, so we must work together to elevate this public health measure as a community expectation, rather than a personal statement. Ultimately, we have Student Conduct and personnel policies available to us to ensure people in the campus community wear masks, which we will use to enforce our community standards as a last resort. No single action will change a community’s behavior. Collectively, many actions can.

Here’s a link to more information about the university’s face covering policy.

What economic realities are we facing and what does this mean for faculty, including pay raises?

It is important to be realistic about this. The economic realities of COVID-19 are quite bleak. Vice Chancellor Forte addressed this in his online 2020 budget presentation, which you can access here. Last semester, we saw $13.6 million in COVID-19 expenses, and they continue to grow. Last month, we furloughed 106 employees. Across the country, we see colleges and universities closing their doors because they have not been able to withstand the financial impacts of the pandemic. Even for a university such is ours, with a solid financial position, losses like these are not sustainable, and we know the impact of continued financial losses will be felt far beyond the borders of our campus.

Additionally, the State of North Carolina is projecting a ten percent reduction in revenue. App State’s state appropriation is about $150 million, so while we are running many scenarios for flexible spending cuts, we are assuming we will see a $15 million reduction in state appropriations for the coming fiscal year.

We won’t know until fall what enrollment will look like. A very real possibility is that we may experience a reduction in enrollment, with the financial impacts that a reduction would bring. For every 1,000 fewer students enrolled at Appalachian, we can calculate a corresponding loss of approximately $20 million. While we hope this kind of loss is not on our horizon, there are university policies that must be followed and which will largely dictate how we navigate that path forward. University policies have built-in processes for faculty input into delivery and meeting our academic obligations and educational mission. Faculty have been routinely engaged, through the Faculty Senate budget committee, in budget discussions throughout the spring and summer. In the event we face a severe financial impact, we will not limit our discussions to Faculty Senate. The faculty at large will be included in discussions of this magnitude. Let us be clear- human lives mean infinitely more to us than financial solvency, but to not consider our financial position would be grossly negligent.

We continue to work to protect as many jobs as possible. We have been able to tap some resources, but some money is designated for specific uses only. Unfortunately, with this as a backdrop, merit raises for anyone are impossible to consider in the immediate future. That does not mean we will not continue our work to position us for these discussions with the System. As we are able, we are committed to looking at merit increases for faculty and increases for employees. In fact, we are working on changing our peer institutions now, to ensure a more equitable comparison for faculty salaries.

Why are Athletics programs continuing?

It is common for people to ask why we continue to have Athletics programs, and why Athletics programs continue to operate, and why we continue construction projects when we are facing financial difficulties. The answers are not simple, but we will lay out a few simple responses, and then can follow up with you on specific questions you may have.

  • Money that is in trusts, for athletics, construction and other uses are legally bound to be used in these ways.
  • Decisions about sports cuts are based on loss of revenue, not supporting Athletics. While it is undeniable that Athletics generates revenue for the institution in measurable ways, including paying tuition and fees, Athletics is managing their budget shortfalls with serious measures, including employee furloughs. Every student-athlete scholarship is paid to the university by Athletics through fundraising, and student athletes who are on partial or no scholarship pay the difference or full tuition.
  • Athletics does not run a deficit budget. They run a balanced budget each year. This is why they are implementing such significant spending cuts.

This letter will be posted on the Academic Affairs website, so you may continue to refer to it. We look forward to continuing our conversations with academic departments, and will continue seeking your input in a variety of ways.

While we are administrators, we are first and foremost members of the faculty of this great institution. Our commitment to faculty is unwavering and is part of our personal and professional makeup. Despite uncertainty, we will work in the only way we know how- with deep and genuine respect for your work, your mission and your calling.


Sheri & Heather

Published: Jul 2, 2020 4:36pm