College students question wisdom of returning to campus during a pandemic

Posted July 15, 2020 5:48 p.m. EDT

Many North Carolina colleges and universities have begun moving forward with plans to reopen on an adjusted schedule this fall. But as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the state – especially among young people – many college students are feeling uneasy about the prospects of returning to campus in a few weeks.

N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina A&T, UNC Greensboro, Elon University, High Point University, and Winston-Salem State University are among the schools that have announced plans to bring students back to campus.

“I’m more concerned about going back to school due to North Carolina’s recent increase in cases,” said David Campos of from Long Island, N.Y., a rising junior at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I have severe asthma that, when triggered, can lead into other health complications and I won’t have access to my primary doctors while in NC.”

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, North Carolina set a record for coronavirus cases on Saturday, with a reported 2,462 new COVID-19 cases. The number of hospitalizations and deaths set a new record on Tuesday.

“I am relatively nervous about returning to campus in the fall,” said Douglas Mathis, a Texas native and rising senior at High Point University. “With the school’s new regulations in place, it is a matter of trusting the school to be able to handle the virus while we are on campus.”

Most N.C. universities are following a schedule that would forgo fall break and end in-person instruction before Thanksgiving, with final exams being taken remotely in early December.

Many of these colleges and universities have been announcing new policies and guidelines that aim to assure the health and safety of faculty, staff, and students. These include face covering policies, which were mandated statewide by Gov. Roy Cooper a few weeks back. Students will have to wear masks in classes and in most spaces on campus.

“My biggest concerns do not necessarily extend from the university itself, but more from fellow students who may not follow the guidelines properly,” Mathis said. “If certain students do not follow the guidelines in place, it puts all students at risk.”

University administrators are also having to reimagine classroom instruction that allows for safe social distancing. Some classes will need to be reduced in size, or split into alternating days. It has also increased demand for large spaces such as lecture halls and auditoriums for classes.

“We're not going to bring students, faculty, staff back onto a campus where we don't believe it's a safe environment,” UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in an interview with CBS last month. “There certainly is some risk, but we believe we're putting in place the right measures to mitigate that risk.”

But even with the increased health and safety protocols, students worry that potential spread of the virus is out of the universities’ control.

New reported COVID-19 cases, deaths in NC

New laboratory confirmed cases and deaths are based on daily reporting from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services via the agency's COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard started publishing case counts on March 13 and death counts on March 26. Because these case and death numbers can lag slightly based on the time it takes labs to process tests and health officials to confirm cases, we're also calculating a seven-day rolling average to show the curve of cases. NOTE: This chart now includes cases and deaths identified through antigen testing, which DHHS began reporting on its dashboard on Sept. 25. Read more about the corrections and compare the changes here.

Source: N.C. DHHS
Graphic: Tyler Dukes, WRAL

“We understand the nature of the virus and how to slow down the spread more than we did in March,” said Austin Green, a Boston resident and rising junior at Elon University. “But it's a little concerning to me that all 6,700 students from around the country and the world will all be returning to campus when, if anything, conditions have worsened since we left campus.”

Campos, who is returning to campus in early August, is looking forward to reuniting with friends but worries about the possibility of a repeat of the spring, where schools were shut down and students were sent home in the middle of the semester.

David Campos

“My biggest concern for fall instruction is that things are going to be ‘normal’ for the first two weeks, and then UNC potentially closing campus again and sending everyone back home,” Campos said. “It’s an inconvenience to have to drive all the way from NY to NC multiple times. In addition, I put myself at risk if I decide to fly back home, so I worry about having to constantly commute back and forth due to the uncertainties surrounding the current pandemic.”

One question that was on the minds of some students was how strictly the universities plan to enforce the face covering policy around campus.

“I am kind of concerned,” said Campos about the idea of wearing a mask for the entirety of a class. “Wearing a mask for so long does hinder my ability to breathe, and to have to wear it for an hour-and-15-minute lecture, I just don’t think is going to be feasible.”

The NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.

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