Education

UNC Chancellor signals plan to bring students back to campus may have to change

Posted July 17, 2020 5:36 p.m. EDT
Updated July 18, 2020 1:07 p.m. EDT

— University of North Carolina students are expected to head back to Chapel Hill next month for the fall semester, but Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz signaled Friday that that plan may have to change.

"We know that our students learn and grow best when they're here on campus, in this in-person environment, where they have the benefit of their faculty and graduate students and each other, right by their side," Guskiewicz told members of the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club. "But we have to do what’s safest and provide the flexibility for everyone."

He told the school's Board of Trustees on Thursday that 57 percent of classes would be conducted in person this fall, although most will be smaller classes where students can be spread out in a room. Large lecture classes will have to be held online because social distancing would be all but impossible, he said.

Students have been given the option to take all of their classes online, and some have chosen to do so, he said.

UNC-Chapel Hill administrators are reviewing the daily numbers provided by state health officials tracking the coronavirus pandemic in North Carolina and are reassessing plans for the fall semester day by day, Guskiewicz said Friday.

"The positive cases across North Carolina is concerning, and it’s not what we had hoped for or certainly expected at this time," he said.

UNC-Chapel Hill plans to require everyone on campus to wear masks, and staff have put signage in buildings denoting one-way traffic in and out and prohibiting entry to anyone with COVID-19 symptoms. The university also has extensive cleaning protocols in place and will limit the number of students in dormitories and dining halls.

Tents are being set up across campus to "de-densify" and create more space for classes and dining, Guskiwwicz said.

Faculty and staff have repeatedly said in recent weeks that they don't want to resume classes on campus, fearing for their own health. They said this week that their concerns are being ignored by administrators, but Guskiewicz said Thursday that isn't the case.

"We have engaged a broad constituency here at the university in terms of our planning, and this has been going on for 10 weeks now," he told WRAL News. "I have personally met with the employee forum, which are the elected employees who represent the staff at the university, and they’ve participated in a webinar that we had back several weeks ago with over 4,100 participants in it. We continue to seek feedback and input, so I would welcome their input."

The prospect of tens of thousands of students coming back to Chapel Hill also has many residents concerned the town will become a hotspot for coronavirus.

Guskiewicz said Friday that there was a cluster of about 16 cases a couple of weeks ago due to students socializing on Franklin Street.

"We understand there are concerns. We're taking it seriously, and we may be taking an off-ramp at some point," he said.

Orange County officials last week ordered restaurants to stop serving alcohol and close their dining rooms at 10 p.m. each night to prevent students partying late into the night and possibly spreading the virus.

Guskiewicz said he's confident students will abide by the guidelines, pointing out that the school and its sports programs are Chapel Hill's main economic drivers.

Still, he said, he's increasingly worried that there won't be a football season this fall. Atlantic Coast Conference officials are expected to discuss that next week.

He said he believes UNC-Chapel Hill can reopen safely, but officials are ready to change plans if needed.

"We are leading in an informed way with some of the best people in the world guiding our decision-making," he said. "Again, those decisions may be changing here over the next weeks. We’re going to get it right.

WRAL Durham reporter Sarah Krueger contributed to this report.

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