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A UNCG dean wins a scientific medal and gets his name on an asteroid

GREENSBORO — About 229 million miles from Earth, partway between Mars and Jupiter, there’s an asteroid named after, of all people, a dean at UNCG.

John Z. Kiss, the dean of UNCG’s College of Arts and Sciences, was honored earlier this year by the Committee on Space Research, which promotes international cooperation in all scientific study of space. In addition to awarding him a medal, the organization put Kiss’ name on a minor planet.

The medal “is just very rewarding,” said Kiss, a biologist who has devoted most of his professional life to studying plants in space. But having his name on an asteroid, he added, “is just really cool.”

COSPAR in January awarded Kiss its International Cooperation Medal, one of its top prizes. Since 2018, the organization has arranged with the International Astronomical Union, which is responsible for naming planets, stars and other celestial bodies, to name asteroids for COSPAR medal winners.

The asteroid now known as 8267 Kiss was discovered in October 1986 by an observatory in the Czech Republic. It orbits the sun from within the main asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter.

Kiss was honored for his work with Spanish scientist Javier Medina. (His asteroid is named 8333 Medina, by the way.) About a decade ago, the two were proposing similar but separate projects to study plant growth in space. A panel of their scientific peers recommended the two combine their efforts.

“We were delighted. That was our goal,” Kiss said in a recent interview. “One plus one equals more than two because we could share samples and share resources. ... Javier and I really wanted to make this work.”

Kiss and Medina led this three-part international research project, which began in 2013 and has involved NASA, the European Space Agency and scientists from other European countries.

Their project was designed to study how plant seedlings react to light and low gravity — something of pending importance as NASA prepares to send humans to the moon and, later, to Mars.

In 2017, Kiss and Medina got their plant seedlings — mouse-ear cress, which is a cousin of kale and cabbage — on the International Space Station. An onboard centrifuge that replicated the gravity found on both Mars and the moon allowed them to perform experiments they couldn’t do on Earth.

The seedlings seemed largely unfazed by the Mars portion of the experiment. But moon gravity, which is even less than that on Mars, seemed to confuse the seedlings.

“If you put a seed in the ground ... you want the stems generally to grow up and the roots to grow down,” Kiss said. “But it’s going to be more complicated on the moon.”

Kiss said he and Medina are still analyzing their data. They have published one scientific paper so far, with more to come.

Kiss, meanwhile, is turning his attention to a new project. He and a NASA scientist want to put a one-cubic-foot greenhouse on the moon to study how seedlings react to radiation and other factors. But competition for a research spot on moon missions is fierce, Kiss said, and NASA has already rejected one of their earlier proposals.

“That’s what I tell students,” Kiss said. “Even if you’re successful, you’re going to be turned down a lot. You need to be resilient.”

As this latest experiment takes shape, Kiss is looking forward to August. That’s when 8267 Kiss will come within about 110 million miles of Earth and will be easier to spot.

So far, Kiss has seen only images of his asteroid. “I got excited even though it’s a dot,” he said.

Having his name on an asteroid “gives you a minor sense of immortality,” Kiss added with a chuckle. “It’ll be there after I’m gone.”

How asteroids are named

The naming of planets, constellations, asteroids and other objects in the solar system is the responsibility of the International Astronomy Union, which was formed in 1919 in Paris.

Asteroids, also known as minor planets, get a provisional letter-number name when they are first discovered. After an asteroid is observed several more times, the IAU’s Minor Planet Center gives it a permanent number.

The person who discovers the asteroid has first crack at naming it, subject to approval by the IAU.

The IAU has several guidelines for names. Names must be short — no more than 16 characters — preferably one word and pronounceable. People and place names are OK. But names can’t be offensive or commercial. The IAU discourages pet names and forbids names of politicians and military leaders as well as political and military events until 100 years after they’re dead or 100 years after that event has passed.

The IAU also names stars and takes a dim view of the practice of selling star names to the public.

“Like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy,” the IAU says on its website. “True, the ‘gift’ of a star may open someone’s eyes to the beauty of the night sky. This is indeed a worthy goal, but it does not justify deceiving people into believing that real star names can be bought like any other commodity.”

Years in the making, commissioners approve $300 million in school bond spending

GREENSBORO — It’s money that has been debated and contested, but soon Guilford County Schools will be able to use $300 million for new buildings and much-needed renovations.

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved a request from the school board to issue bond debt for the money, which was approved by voters in a referendum last November.

County Manager Michael Halford told commissioners that it takes about four months to sell the bonds and take on the debt.

The approval Thursday was the last step in a process that has been years in the making.

The declining condition of some county schools has long drawn consternation from many who’ve been advocating for repairs and renovations.

Discussions of the bonds began as far back as 2016 when Superintendent Sharon Contreras arrived and learned about the aged condition of some of the buildings she would be overseeing. There were schools, for example, operating in buildings deemed inappropriate for their use.

The system determined that the average construction date of Guilford County school buildings was 1966.

Administrators wrote a strategic plan during this process and developed a master growth plan in 2019.

The price tag for all the district’s building and renovation needs: a staggering $1.6 billion.

However, under a previous Board of Commissioners, only $300 million for those requests and the bond referendum was approved.

A start, at least.

According to Angie Henry, the district’s chief financial officer, almost all of the system’s schools have needs, from completely new buildings to replacement of mobile classroom units that are more than 30 years old.

Now with that money coming, the district will follow a spending plan that was laid out in March.

First, the district will fork out $10.6 million on land for current and future projects.

The plan includes building two projects related to the schools damaged and closed by the tornado that devastated east Greensboro three years ago this week. Under the plan, a new Hampton-Peeler Elementary School would be constructed on the site of what was former Peeler Elementary.

The school plans also call for Archer Elementary to be closed as a neighborhood school, fully renovated and turned into a Montessori magnet school.

Other schools on the list to be replaced are Brooks Global Studies and Foust and Claxton elementary schools.

Peck Elementary would be rebuilt as an “expeditionary learning” magnet school for grades K-8.

The two most expensive items on the list are $56.7 million to turn Foust into a gaming and robotics magnet school and $55.4 million to rebuild Kiser Middle School.

Several commissioners, including teacher Mary Beth Murphy who joined the board in December, expressed excitement at the new school spending.

Carly Cooke, a mother of two young children, ran on a platform of more money for schools.

“I’m excited about all these new schools,” she said.

And Carlvena Foster added: “I’m very excited we’re at this point.”

N.C. A&T restricts dining and dorm visits as COVID-19 cases surge on campus

GREENSBORO — As the number of COVID-19 cases goes up on the N.C. A&T campus, the university is once again cracking down on students.

The university as of Wednesday has eliminated in-person dining at its cafeteria and student center. It also has banned all visitors from campus housing.

A&T didn’t say when these restrictions might be lifted, but said it might impose stricter measures — and could cancel the two in-person commencement ceremonies scheduled for May 9 — if students don’t comply and on-campus COVID-19 cases don’t recede.

A&T put similar restrictions in place in mid-November after a surge in cases following homecoming and Halloween.

Those limits on dining and dorm visitation in the fall “had a rapid and positive impact on viral spread,” Chancellor Harold Martin wrote to students Tuesday. “We hoped that we would not have to return to these measures, but growth in infection rates leaves us no alternative.”

Between March 31 and Tuesday, according to a News & Record accounting of A&T’s online COVID-19 dashboard, the university recorded 200 new cases of the coronavirus — 196 among students and four more among faculty and staff. The 59 student cases reported Monday and Tuesday were the largest two-day total of the semester.

Eleven percent of A&T students who took COVID-19 tests on those two days tested positive. That’s more than twice the spring semester positivity rate of 4.6%.

In addition, A&T has reported six clusters of COVID-19 cases since April 7: one April 7 at an off-campus apartment complex operated by the university, four Monday in four different campus residence halls and one Wednesday among the football team.

The rapid rise in cases at A&T seems to have stemmed from off-campus events unofficially connected to Aggie Fest, local TV station WGHP (Fox, Channel 8) reported Wednesday.

Aggie Fest is a week-long and university-sponsored series of on-campus events for students held every spring. This year’s edition ended Sunday.

But Aggie Fest traditionally spawns plenty of unofficial and unsanctioned off-campus parties and gatherings. The High Point TV station reported that A&T officials saw on social media last week numerous accounts of large off-campus parties where students didn’t wear facemasks.

These new infections boosted A&T past its fall semester total of 614 COVID-19 cases.

As of Tuesday, A&T has recorded 620 cases since Jan. 1. Students are responsible for more than 90% of those new spring semester cases.

Although cases and hospitalizations are starting to tick back up across North Carolina, most other area colleges and universities aren’t seeing similar surges.

UNCG, the Triad’s largest university, has reported 10 cases since Monday and 18 in the prior week.

At Wake Forest University, which imposed campus restrictions in February because of a rapid rise in cases there, has reported just 11 cases this month.

Elon University, which had more than 300 students in quarantine or isolation at the end of March, now has just 22 active campus cases.

The only other area school that has seen a concerning rise in cases is Winston-Salem State University.

The university told students Monday it found a cluster of five positive cases but didn’t say where it originated. On Tuesday, the university recorded 13 new COVID-19 cases — the most in one day since WSSU started counting back in August — and canceled the football team’s spring practice sessions.

At A&T, meanwhile, Martin reminded students that the last day of classes was about two weeks away and commencement would be held in less than a month.

“Do your part to ensure we reach those milestones without further incident and that neither graduates-to-be and their families nor your family members and friends back home pay the price for the irresponsibility of a small minority of our student body,” Martin wrote Tuesday.

Can N.C. colleges make students get a COVID-19 vaccine? Opinions vary.

RALEIGH — Some North Carolina college students might have to pack their COVID-19 vaccination cards when they return to campus next fall as universities consider whether to require vaccines.

Mandatory vaccinations could mean a faster return to normal for campuses, but it’s a complicated issue.

Though vaccines have proven to be a safe and effective tool in reducing transmission, there’s legal uncertainty about whether schools can ask that of their students and employees.

Duke University has announced that students must get a COVID-19 vaccine before the fall semester. Duke already requires students to show proof of several other vaccinations and immunizations before they can start classes on campus.

Duke President Vincent Price said “widespread vaccination will be the only way to facilitate a return to normal and robust campus life.”

More than a dozen other public and private universities around the country are also requiring COVID-19 vaccines for next fall, including Rutgers, Notre Dame, Cornell and Northeastern.

But others, including Virginia Tech, say they can’t legally do that without full FDA approval of vaccines.

The UNC System, which governs North Carolina’s 16 public universities, has not announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students or employees. In a statement, the UNC System said it is urging students to get vaccinated as soon as they can, but not requiring it. System leaders are relying on direction from federal and state public health officials.

UNC-Chapel Hill has been considering the option and legal issues. UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz addressed questions about a vaccine requirement at a recent meeting with student, faculty and community leaders.

Guskiewicz said they are having regular conversations with UNC-CH infectious disease and public health experts who said it would be “premature” to institute a mandate. He also said it’s likely that the Chapel Hill community will reach herd immunity before the fall semester. Combined with mask-wearing and other safety precautions, there will be little risk at that point, Guskiewicz said.

Several universities in the UNC System are running COVID-19 vaccine clinics on campus and have administered more than 62,500 vaccinations.

Isaiah Green, president of the UNC System’s Association of Student Governments, said he’s heard both excitement and concerns from students about the possibility of a vaccine mandate. He said some students see it as a way to get back the “full college experience.” Others, particularly Black students, have real concerns about the safety of the vaccines and access to them, he said.

Public and private universities already require students to get certain vaccines and have for nearly a century. But the wrinkle for COVID-19 vaccines is that they are authorized for emergency use and not FDA-approved.

The emergency use authorization statute for the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines says people must be told they can accept or refuse the medicine.

Universities requiring vaccines could expect some legal challenges with backing from the anti-vaccine movement, according to Dorit Reiss, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and a specialist in vaccine law and policy.

“Most of the time people suing the university lose,” she said.

North Carolina state law already requires college students to get several vaccines, and schools can add more to their own lists.

It’s possible that one or all of these vaccines could get full FDA-approval in the next few months, which would mean the COVID-19 vaccine is exactly the same as other mandated vaccines.

If the state can mandate vaccines for measles and mumps, then a COVID-19 vaccine would also make sense, public health lawyer and UNC-CH professor Jill Moore said. But the administrative process to add it to the state’s list could take up to 18 months and require public and legislative oversight, she said.

“(Schools) seem to be either putting faith in the idea that we’ll have full licensure or assuming they can require it,” Moore said.