Concerns mount in Chapel Hill over prospect of students returning to UNC amid pandemic

Posted July 10, 2020 5:28 p.m. EDT
Updated July 10, 2020 9:34 p.m. EDT

Classes resume at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in one month, and concerns are mounting over the safety of having thousands of college students back on campus amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Jermany Alston, a housekeeper on campus, said Friday that four other housekeepers have already tested positive for the virus with only a limited number of people on campus. She said she worries because she works in a dorm that houses football players, and the team halted its workouts this week after identifying a cluster of infections.

"I have cleaned the rooms that they have been in, so I don’t know what rooms the person was in or who has it or have I come in contact with them," Alston said. "It’s scary for me because then I have to go home, and if I do have it, then I put my family at risk as well."

She said she doesn't believe UNC-Chapel Hill administrators are doing enough to protect staff.

"The only thing we wear right now is gloves and a mask. That’s all," she said. "I don’t even think we should be back at work. ... It’s like a lose-lose situation. You don’t know which way to go. You don’t know who has it."

Alston is among a growing chorus of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and workers who say the online classes that started in March at the outset of the pandemic should continue through fall semester. If students do return to campus, she said, they all should be tested for the virus.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials said no mass testing of students is planned.

"Testing every member of our community could create a false sense of security," states a notice on the Carolina Together website. "The CDC does not recommend widespread, asymptomatic testing and, instead, recommends that all individuals take preventative measures to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This is consistent with the advice of our own infectious disease and public health faculty experts."

Campus workers aren't the only ones concerned.

Chapel Hill resident Lou Lipsitz wrote in a letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz that officials were playing Russian roulette with everyone's lives by reopening the campus too soon.

"This will change the way I live and, I think, many, many other people, too," Lipsitz said Friday. "We’ll have to be, frankly, just scared and careful."

He said he doesn't get out much now because of the pandemic, and his outings would be reduced even more if students are back in Chapel Hill.

"I would be much, much less willing to go out and take a walk in town, I might even be more careful taking a walk on some trails I typically take walks on," he said.

Amy Odom, a Chapel Hill resident whose son will be a freshman this fall, said she also has concerns about everyone's safety, but she's hopeful that classes can start on campus without a problem as long as students adhere to public health guidelines.

"If we can get people to follow those, I think we can have a safer reopening of the university, and it benefits the community as a whole," Odom said.

She wrote to the Chapel Hill Town Council recently to complain about crowds of young adults partying at restaurants late into the night despite the rules about social distancing and wearing masks in public. Orange County officials subsequently ordered all restaurants to close their dining rooms and cut off alcohol sales at 10 p.m., beginning Friday.