Appalachian State Grapples With Aftermath of Student Death

Confusion and concern mount in the wake of a student's death as COVID-19 infections spread.

October 12, 2020
 
Appalachian State University

It’s been a difficult few weeks at Appalachian State University after one of its students died at the end of September following a COVID-19 infection.

That student, 19-year-old Chad Dorrill, was a sophomore studying to become a physical therapist. He died Sept. 28, weeks after going home with symptoms, quarantining and then returning to Boone, N.C. He became one of the first known college students to have died from COVID-19 or related complications this fall.

In the days that followed, faculty members reported a range of emotions: horror, confusion, frustration and dread. The disconnect between those who took seriously precautions against the pandemic and those who did not became more glaring, some said. Others saw concern and even fear growing in their students.

Exacerbating the situation, Appalachian State, a 20,000-student regional public institution in Boone, found itself in the midst of a surge in active COVID-19 cases. When the university publicly confirmed Dorrill’s death on Sept. 29, it reported 159 active cases among students -- almost twice as many as a week earlier.

“I feel like there’s this wave, and we’re out on the ocean at that moment where you see the swell coming up behind you,” Rick Rheingans, chair of the university’s department of sustainable development, said on Oct. 1. “We’re about to get slammed.”

No cases were active among employees at the time. But by Oct. 3, active cases among students totaled 225, and 10 active cases had been counted among employees. For the week ending Oct. 4, Appalachian State reported a testing positivity rate of 8.4 percent, up from 3.5 percent two weeks earlier. More recent numbers show a slight decline in cases and positivity rates, but the metrics had yet to drop to previous levels.

The university did not end in-person instruction for undergraduates and send students home -- steps taken earlier in the semester by three of its more prominent sister institutions in the University of North Carolina system, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and East Carolina University. Faculty members were frustrated in part because they’d seen no clearly articulated criteria for what, exactly would cause administrators to move the rest of the semester online.

Only one in five Appalachian State classes are meeting entirely face-to-face, according to a university spokeswoman. Another 32 percent are hybrid and 48 percent are remote.

In recent days, the university’s chancellor, Sheri Everts, heard from advocates who wanted to remain on campus and who wanted to shift to online learning only, Everts wrote in an Oct. 8 update. No confirmed cases of classroom transmission had been recorded, but administrators were worried about clusters of infections in residence halls, she wrote.

University administrators coordinate with the University of North Carolina system, Everts wrote. They meet twice a week with representatives from the state health department’s COVID response team, and they meet daily with the region’s health department. The UNC system has said it and its constituent institutions work with local, state and federal health authorities to monitor developments, coordinate, share information and offer guidance on COVID-19.

“We continue to review the data and respond with measures that best meet the needs of our students and faculty, and support the teaching and learning experience at App State,” Everts wrote.

Some of Everts’s communications about Dorrill’s death and the university’s COVID-19 cases angered students and faculty members who felt she was too quick to shift blame away from her administration or too blithe about the public health situation unfolding. The university prominently noted that Dorrill lived off campus and took all of his classes online, for example. Days before he died, Everts told the university’s Board of Trustees that “each week of the Fall 2020 semester we complete is a significant accomplishment and the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff -- and of the greater community -- remain at the forefront of every decision.”

Navigating the situation remains difficult for students and faculty members, several of whom worry about a confusing information environment and distrust of official numbers coming from university administrators.

As is the case across higher education, the pandemic appears to be deepening existing rifts between groups at Appalachian State, fueling unease around campus and prompting deep questions about how effective leaders and experts can be at delivering complex information clearly and honestly during a chaotic time.

‘Share the Message’

Dorrill’s parents are emphasizing a clear message: safety on and off campus. His mother, Susan Dorrill, asked that people self-isolate if they test positive for COVID-19 or if they are waiting for test results.

“These have been the most difficult days for our family,” she said in an email. “If there is a possibility to save even one family from the nightmare we are living it is to continue to share the message.”

Please, she asked, wear a mask.

Her son had no known underlying conditions, she said. He hadn’t been vaccinated recently. In the hospital, he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves. Doctors believe the Guillain-Barré diagnosis was due to complications related to COVID-19.

“We hope to know more once the autopsy is complete and we meet with the neurological team,” she said.

Chad Dorrill was born in Texas but considered Cedarburg, Wis., where he lived for many years, his hometown, according to his obituary. He graduated from Ledford Senior High School in North Carolina in 2019. He was an All-Conference basketball player there.

Fear and Polarization

For several faculty members, Dorrill’s death brought into relief how divided even different groups associated with the university have become.

Rheingans, chairman of the university’s department of sustainable development, recalled an exchange he had with a trustee about opening this fall for students. The trustee reminded him that the university needed to consider the overall well-being of students and that students need quality interactions on campus.

“I wrote back and said I don’t completely disagree,” Rheingans said. “I’m very concerned about sending students home, and I feel there is real value, especially in certain kinds of courses, in having some face-to-face interaction.”

Even when they could find a middle ground, the two were seeing things from a very different perspective, Rheingans said. He wonders where the balance is between quality and safety.

Students could have substantive face-to-face interactions when local disease prevalence is low. Right now, that’s not possible, he said.

“We’ve got no safety, so we’ve got poor quality,” Rheingans said. “Most of my students won’t go on campus. They’re afraid to go outside.”

Other faculty members wondered why the debate in higher education must so often be reduced to stark choices between reopening campuses for all students versus holding instruction completely online. Could a middle ground be found that opens campuses for the students who most need a place to live or in-person instruction? Would that option allow campuses to further reduce density, making the spread of the virus less likely?

It's not clear that such strategies would help or that they would satisfy anyone -- or if a large outbreak would render them unsafe.

One graduate teaching assistant, Chloë Marie Dorin, wrote a public letter to Everts and Appalachian State’s Board of Trustees last week calling on them to take swift action in response to the current situation and outlining steps she thinks they should take to make the campus more safe.

Appalachian State is testing a relatively low percentage of its population on campus, she wrote, pointing to data the university reported. That means a high margin of error and possibly many more COVID-19 cases in the population than are being detected. She also ran down statistics showing a large number of cases have been detected in athletics, Greek life and dormitories.

“I beseech you to protect our community and our lives by taking the steps necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19,” she wrote in the letter. “Although these steps may incur financial hardship for the university and may disappoint many students, there is no value greater than that of a human life. I ask you to consider the data I have presented here and the perspective that only in ending all athletics programs, closing all dormitories immediately for at least the remainder of this semester, disbanding all greek (sic) life organizations, and moving all classes fully online can you fulfill your duty to the entire Appalachian community.”

Appalachian State is not ruling out any options regarding moving all course delivery online, according to university spokeswoman Megan Hayes. Leaders have considered suspending in-person classes and asking students to shelter in place for a period of time, but they do not believe it is time to use such strategies.

Hayes said the university could enforce a shelter-in-place order in residence halls but not off campus, where 70 percent of student cases have been detected. Instead, the university is relying on large-scale testing, targeting residence halls and working with public health officials to target off-campus housing. It’s also working with law enforcement to address any problems off campus, although police aren’t reporting many large parties in violation of restrictions. Instead, university leaders think students need to be better about wearing face coverings and social distancing.

Critics have also argued that the university isn’t conducting enough tests to truly gauge the spread of COVID-19 among students, in part because it had been relying heavily on voluntary testing instead of widespread, comprehensive, mandatory testing. The university reported just shy of 2,000 on-campus tests for the week ending Oct. 4, representing less than 10 percent of its total number of students and staff members.

Hayes said the university has not encountered limitations in on-campus testing availability and it has increased testing steadily during the semester.

Faculty members tell stories about students encountering difficulty getting tested or long wait times for testing results, though. A drugstore performing drive-through testing had a line circling the block twice at one point, Rheingans said.

“Students have had to leave the county to get tested,” he said. “I had a student who had to go to Tennessee to get tested.”

Some faculty members suggested the university is remaining open to curry favor with the UNC Board of Governors, which has developed a reputation in some circles as politically motivated in recent years. Hayes rejected that idea.

About a third of the university’s undergraduates come from rural areas. A third are first-generation college students, she said.

“We know that many of these, and many other students, need an in-person learning experience,” Hayes said. “We are balancing the need to protect our students from contracting COVID-19 with the reality that it is already having a major impact on their lives. Our primary mental health and wellness concerns for our students include isolation, loss of experiences, and lack of motivation largely due to the presence of COVID-19.”

Only 5,000 or so of the university’s 20,000 students live on campus. That and the university’s mountain location are factors when making decisions, Hayes said in an email.

“We have data that show our location is the reason many ultimately choose App State,” she said. “Students sign year-long leases, get jobs, register to vote and stay here as much as they can. These are all factors we consider when we look at next steps. Will students pack up and leave if we go all-remote? With only 20 percent of students learning in classrooms now, and as we work to continue to move students to remote learning formats upon request, we aren't seeing them leave the Boone area en masse. At this time, we don't see compelling evidence that indicates that moving courses to a fully remote format will be an effective de-densification strategy.”

Signs showed at least some students taking the virus more seriously following Dorrill's death. Anecdotes have been reported by faculty members and other publications, including The New York Times, describing a student realizing that he and Dorrill were sick at roughly the same time and with similar symptoms.

“He died a week or two after he got the virus,” the student told the Times. “It has been about two weeks for me.”

The situation on campus is complicated by recent history. Faculty members pushed in months past for the university to be more cautious in its plans to reopen for in-person instruction this fall.

A faculty committee recommended in the spring that only remote instruction be offered come August. Then, in August, the university’s Faculty Senate voted to hold the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors and the university’s chancellor responsible for any illness or death resulting from reopening campus.

Anecdotally, faculty members report a large number of their students say they had COVID-19 or had to quarantine, according to Michael Behrent, associate professor in Appalachian State’s history department and chair of its Faculty Senate. Some ask how the university’s COVID dashboard can be true, thinking the numbers have to be underreported based on their personal experience.

In some cases, faculty members appear to feel that it’s in their best interest not to trust official information. Others feel the administration is providing no clear answers.

“People asked the question when anxiety started to increase,” Behrent said. “How many deaths will it take before we shut down? People asked the administration, and they gave us the sort of bureaucratic answer, but they made it clear that there was not a specific criteria or metric.”

The chancellor’s recent update on Oct. 8 seemed to at least be a realistic depiction of the situation, according to Zack Murrell, a professor and chair in Appalachian State’s department of biology. He had been worried leaders’ previous messaging was too positive, fostering a false sense of security on and around campus.

In that message, Everts outlined daily testing positivity rates falling from 5.6 percent Oct. 5 to 3.4 percent Oct. 7, with a total of 79 positive tests in the week to date. An already-identified football team cluster added four new cases. Football practice was suspended and an Oct. 14 game against Georgia Southern University was postponed.

The university was also offering on-campus students the ability to opt out of their housing contracts if they want to return to their hometowns, Everts said in the update.

As critical and skeptical as they can be of the administration's response, faculty members also pointed out that university leaders aren't operating in a vacuum. They're dealing with a pandemic that has been politicized across the country and a range of information from federal, state and local officials.

Murrell is horrified at the way different levels of government and higher education have handled the pandemic, from the federal government to college presidents. He sees conflict, emotional turmoil, fears and challenges as people try to seek common ground while renegotiating acceptable public behavior. It all comes in the face of mixed messaging across levels from the White House to college administrators.

“What they’re doing is making us even more divided as a community,” he said. “You’re seeing a breakdown of society because of fear, and those cracks that probably were always there have become these huge, wide-open fissures.”

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