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UNC System: No tuition or fee refunds this year if classes move online

UNC System students won’t get a break on tuition or fees in 2020-21 if all classes are moved online again because of COVID-19.

The UNC Board of Governors voted Thursday not to reduce or refund tuition or student fees if the pandemic upends academic instruction like it did in the spring.

“We believe we have to support the services associated with the campuses and all the different aspects needed to support the students while they are getting their educations on one of our campuses,” board Chairman Randy Ramsey told reporters after Thursday’s meeting.

The state’s 16 public universities didn’t refund tuition or fees after they switched all classes to remote formats in March, about halfway through the spring semester. Students at UNC System schools — and most other U.S. colleges and universities — completed their classes online.

Board members who supported Thursday’s measure said tuition and fee revenues are crucial to university operations and the long-term financial health of each campus. But several who objected, including Marty Kotis of Summerfield, said the UNC System would be overcharging its students if schools switch again to an online-only experience, which they consider inferior to in-person instruction.

Tuition covers some administrative and most academic expenses, including faculty salaries, some student financial aid and campus operations and maintenance. Fees help pay for specific student programs, including athletics, student health services, student activities, campus and classroom technology, campus safety and some construction projects.

Annual undergraduate tuition and fees at UNC System schools for North Carolina residents for the upcoming academic year range from $8,911 at UNC School of the Arts to $3,259 at Elizabeth City State University. In-state students at the area’s other three public universities pay between $5,800 and $7,300 a year. Out-of-state students are charged substantially more.

The Board of Governors voted in May to freeze tuition and fees at last year’s rates.

The UNC System’s governing board didn’t address potential refunds of housing or dining fees Thursday. Students who lived in college housing and had meal plans during the spring semester got prorated refunds after universities closed their campuses in March.

For 2020-21, the UNC System has said its schools might issue housing and dining refunds if they send students home before the end of the semester.

On a wing and a tear: While the pandemic has nearly crippled the airline industry, one company is flying high

GREENSBORO — With few people wanting or willing to board commercial airliners because they fear being infected with the coronavirus, one aviation company has found its services are in high demand.

It’s a local company called Jet It.

For a fee, you can own a share of a HondaJet — the company isn’t affiliated with Honda, although it does buy the company’s aircraft — to use at your disposal.

Nimble, fast and small, the roughly $6 million HondaJet, made in a factory at Piedmont Triad International Airport, is perfect for the well-heeled person who may not need or be able to afford larger business jets that cost tens of millions of dollars.

But leaders of the company, which launched in December 2018, believe they have found an accessible way to get people into private planes. And in 18 months, the company has seen sales increase dramatically.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down the country and much of the airline industry in the process, has also created a new kind of client for Jet It: the business traveler who wants to remain socially distant but needs to fly.

“The COVID crisis has only gathered more attention to what we’re doing,” said Glenn Gonzales, the CEO of Jet It.

There are companies like Jet It, but it’s the only one exclusively with a HondaJet fleet.

Jet It began with one airplane in January 2019. Now, it has five.

By the end of 2021, Gonzales expects to have a fleet of 16 jets that can fly “anywhere and everywhere.”

To say that Randy Carver’s immune system is compromised would understate the health challenges he has battled since he was 12.

He overcame obstacles that might have discouraged other people and in 1990 founded Carver Financial Services in Ohio.

Now 56, he owns the largest Raymond James Financial office in the country, managing $1.7 billion in assets for customers.

And although he has never been to Greensboro, Carver was one of Jet It’s earliest customers and remains one of the burgeoning company’s greatest supporters.

He said he took a look at Jet It and found the company matches his needs as a businessman who flies somewhere at least once a month.

And besides, flying commercially is a huge risk for anyone these days.

Diagnosed with cancer at age 12, Carver endured treatments and surgeries for three years that left him without pieces of his lungs, no spleen and a paralyzed vocal cord that causes him to speak with a rasp.

While in his 20s, Carver endured another setback when a small plane he was piloting was forced to make a crash landing. He suffered numerous injuries, including a cracked larynx.

In 2019, he heard about Jet It and paid an introductory price of $600,000 along with two friends to buy a one-tenth share of a HondaJet.

Since then, he has joined with another friend to expand his shares and now is part of a group that owns one-fifth of a plane.

It’s by no means a cheap way to travel, Carver says. Still, the service, which he says costs an owner about $1,600 an hour, is allowing him to be more efficient with his time.

What’s more, it’s limiting his exposure to the coronavirus.

Gonzales believes Jet It opened at the right time.

The pandemic “has resulted in a lot of people trying to find us rather than us going out to find them,” he said.

Business is up by a staggering 300% in the second quarter compared to a year ago.

Where there used to be one employee a year ago, now there are 34.

And each of the company’s five planes are flying 50 hours a month.

At some point, one of those planes lands in Ohio, where Carver lives. A customer like him can live in another state and do business with Jet It because the company has what it calls a “floating fleet” that will deliver a plane to any customer at their airport, large or small.

“With all the COVID stuff, people who don’t want to be exposed on flights, it can be a great alternative,” he said.

Coronavirus is exploding in the South. What can North Carolina do to control it?

CHARLOTTE — Infectious disease experts say if North Carolina officials make the right decisions in coming weeks, they may be able to avoid the fate that harder hit states are facing now.

But without careful planning, they say, the state may be only a few weeks away from becoming a severe COVID-19 hot spot.

States across the South are experiencing surges of the novel coronavirus as reopening efforts continue. Texas, Arizona, Florida and Georgia have all seen a spike in their case counts, and North Carolina reached 100,000 COVID-19 cases earlier this week.

So far, North Carolina is faring better than those four states in key metrics like hospitalizations, number of cases per 100,000 residents and the percent of tests that come back positive.

But as North Carolina’s cases continue to climb, public health experts and local officials fear things will only get worse. In many states in the South, that fear has already come true.

Reopening too early?

Both Arizona and Texas have emerged as two of the country’s COVID-19 epicenters. Cases and deaths are rising rapidly, and experts say that premature reopening has contributed significantly to the surge. Decreased social distancing and inconsistent mask wearing have also worsened outbreaks, experts say.

Erika Austhof, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, said that Arizona’s stay-at-home order was lifted far too early on May 15. “We definitely opened too soon,” Austhof said, “A lot of what we’re seeing now is a result of that order being lifted. It’s really just been exponentially increasing since then.”

Arizona had a plan to reopen in phases, but on May 15 the state had not met the requirements to continue the process, Austhof said. Although certain coronavirus metrics were not where they needed to be, Gov. Doug Ducey lifted the stay-at-home order anyway, she said.

“Now it feels like we’re just playing catch up,” Austhof said.

Gov. Roy Cooper has extended North Carolina’s second phase of reopening twice, once in late June and again last week. Phase Two will remain in effect until at least Aug. 7, Cooper said in a news conference last week.

Cooper’s decision to delay Phase Three of reopening has likely been a key factor in keeping the pandemic under control in the state.

Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, says that reopening quickly and early is a commonality she sees in many of the states that are now reporting record amounts of new coronavirus cases.

“As soon as you get people together again, particularly when they’re not socially distancing or wearing a mask, the virus is going to take advantage of that and spread,” Troisi said. Texas’ spike in cases was no surprise, she said.

“A few weeks back, this was totally predictable,” Troisi said, “It was wishful thinking. ‘We’re tired of the pandemic, our economy is hurting, so let’s pretend that everything is OK.’”

Anthony Alberg, chair of the epidemiology and biostatistics department at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, says that Cooper’s decisions are paying off.

“North Carolina seems more concerned about following the actual evidence-based guidelines,” he said, “As bad as the trends are looking there, the steps that have been taken appear to have helped control COVID-19 compared to neighboring states.”

Experts within North Carolina are paying attention to the dire circumstances in other states. They want to make sure that North Carolina doesn’t make the same mistakes.

“In some of these places where they decided to just open up without giving any consideration to the data, now they’re seeing a spike in cases and they’re trying to avoid another shutdown,” said Dr. Ahmed Arif, a professor of epidemiology at UNC-Charlotte. “There’s a lesson to be learned here.”

Moving backward

North Carolinians are eager to return to their normal lives, and many are frustrated with the delays in reopening. But experts warn that residents should be prepared not only for pauses in the reopening process, but also for taking steps backward when necessary.

Epidemiologists in Arizona and Texas agree that backtracking during reopening would have helped prevent the crises in their states. And Arif hopes that North Carolina will be open to that possibility.

North Carolina’s Phase Two has been extended twice, but coronavirus metrics are still moving in the wrong direction. “The cases are going up,” Arif said, “At some point we may have to think about whether we need to take a step back, if this doesn’t improve soon.”

Austhof, from Arizona, says that every state should be more willing to move backward in their reopening processes. If things are not improving, it makes more sense to back up than it does to keep things the same, she said. “That’s how the system is set up, that’s how it should be working. That’s just not what we’ve done,” Austhof said.

Troisi, the Texas doctor, echoed her sentiment. “You are having spread during this phase, so if you keep pausing the phase, presumably you’re still going to have spread. It would make more sense to me to back up a little bit,” she said, after reviewing North Carolina’s coronavirus data.

But Troisi knows that backing up is much easier said than done. It’s harder for residents to accept a second shutdown or stay-at-home order, she said. There’s also pressure on local officials to reopen businesses for the sake of the economy.

“We scientists recognize that the economy is critical, and we do have to open up,” said Dr. Jose Szapocznik, chair emeritus of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami. Szapocznik says that proper contact tracing is one of the most important measures to take while reopening.

“The lesson for North Carolina is simple,” Szapocznik said. “As we open up, are we mounting the level of testing, contact tracing, and serious isolation that is needed? If not, maybe you need to lock down,” he said.

Troisi understands that Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott and other local politicians are in a tough position, caught between a public health crisis and a struggling economy, she said. But she thinks there’s a way to support the economy without compromising safety. “I think this ‘economy or public health’ debate is a false dichotomy,” she said, “Of course the economy is important. People need to put food on the table and have a roof over their head. But we could open up smarter than we have been.”

Taking responsibility

While a state’s reopening timeline may be in the hands of politicians, much of the responsibility still falls to individual residents. The attitudes that communities hold toward the pandemic can greatly impact its severity, public health experts say.

Arif emphasized the importance of social distancing, wearing face masks, washing hands and staying away from crowds. These actions are essentially the only defense people have against the coronavirus.

“We don’t have any other measures, we don’t have vaccines, so what we are left with are these important steps that are very much dependent on individuals’ behavior,” Arif said. A face mask mandate also helps, he said, but is difficult to enforce.

Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida all lack a statewide face mask requirement. North Carolina has had one since June 24, when Cooper announced an executive order mandating the use of face masks in all public areas.

“We know that social distancing and masks work, when they’re done consistently and well,” said Austhof, “We have that data from other countries around the world.”

In Georgia, a growing coronavirus hot spot, one expert says that irresponsible behavior on the part of both residents and local officials have made things worse. Dr. Handel Andreas, an epidemiologist at the University of Georgia, noticed “general underestimation by leaders and individuals of the severity of the situation,” he wrote.

He thinks Georgia would be in much better shape if there was “stronger and clearer messaging regarding the importance of continuing to practice social distancing, and the importance of wearing face masks,” he wrote.

North Carolina’s leadership needs to be clear, consistent and evidence-based, Andreas said. “There is no return to normal or economic recovery until cases are driven to a very low level, and that to accomplish that, people will have to behave in a responsible manner,” he wrote.

One metric experts say must be carefully monitored is the rate of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. North Carolina coronavirus hospitalizations hit a record high on Thursday.

“The increase in hospitalizations is very concerning,” said Troisi. “The whole reason for flattening the curve back in March and April was to prevent our health care facilities from becoming overwhelmed.”

Cases need to be kept low enough for health care workers to manage patients, and to avoid putting a strain on hospital resources like ventilators and personal protective equipment.

“We may reach the point where we need to ration care, and that’s a terrifying thought,” Troisi said.

Alberg, the University of South Carolina professor, said that rationing care has already become a reality in some hospitals.

“I know we’re balancing the economy and public health here, but we need to prevent the worst case scenario which is when the health care infrastructure starts to break down,” Alberg said. “That’s part of what’s happening now in the United States. We don’t need to turn to Italy for examples,” he said.

Some experts have described North Carolina as “the best of the worst” among the southern states hit hardest by COVID-19. This means that the state is likely approaching a tipping point, and if things get much worse, cases and deaths will soar.

“There’s too much at stake,” said Szapocznik, the University of Miami professor. “Our economy is at stake, people’s well-being is at stake. I just hope you don’t end up like us.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper