Orange County health director recommends UNC-Chapel Hill be online-only

Posted August 5, 2020 12:22 p.m. EDT
Updated August 6, 2020 12:16 p.m. EDT

— The health director for Orange County has recommended all classes at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill be taught online.

Health Director Quintana Stewart says classes should be virtual for the entire fall semester but, at the minimum, the first five weeks of the semester, with plans to reassess the situation after that.

Stewart also recommends on-campus housing be restricted to at-risk students who don't have access to equitable educational resources and students with true housing needs. Students with true housing needs would be international students, Carolina Covenant and marginalized students, she said.

In a memo sent to UNC-Chapel Hill administrators on July 29, Stewart says Orange County coronavirus cases have nearly doubled over the past month, with record highs in early June.

Stewart also says there are capacity issues with coronavirus testing and contact tracing. The memo explains that there is a national supply shortage for the chemical reagent used to process coronavirus tests, which has delayed test results.

Another cause for concern is Chapel Hill's public transportation. The memo says that public buses are used not only by students but also by a large percentage of health care workers to commute to work at UNC Hospitals. Stewart says the town does not have plans to limit the number of riders on the bus, while also maintaining social distancing and mask wearing.

Stewart says she has received several emails from concerned community members, UNC staff and faculty and students about returning in person to the university's campus. She explained that, if students move back to campus en masse, the school could quickly become a hotspot for new cases.

Students began moving back to campus on July 27.

Some people have more concerns after seeing a video posted online of a large crowd of what appear to be students not wearing masks.

The student who took the video did not want to be identified.

"I'm incredibly angry, to be very honest, because so many, most people, at least in Chapel Hill throughout the summer, have been doing their part," said the student.

The video adds to the concern about how safe it is for students to be back in Chapel Hill.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson released the following statement about the video:

“We expect students to follow our community standards to help protect each other, our campus and local community. Students were required to sign an acknowledgment of the community standards and agree to follow them. We are disappointed with the reports we have received regarding this event and will follow up, as we do with all reports that indicate our community expectations may not have been met.”

Some students, staff and faculty held a "die-in" on campus Wednesday, urging UNC-Chapel Hill to move classes online.

Orange County spokesman Todd McGee says the county does have the power to force the university to shut down.

"That is not something that is being pursued at this point. That is kind of a complex legal process, so it’s not as easy as you might think to do that," explained McGee.

On Wednesday afternoon, the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee held an emergency meeting to discuss the letter from the health director.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said administrators have been working with Orange County for months and have made modifications based on recommendations from the health department.

Guskiewicz said residence halls have been "de-densified" to 65% occupancy, and in-person classes will have a capacity of 30% of seats or less.

The Faculty Executive Committee will meet for a regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.