Education

UNC-Chapel Hill halting in-person classes as campus coronavirus crisis grows

Posted August 17, 2020 2:51 p.m. EDT
Updated August 18, 2020 8:37 a.m. EDT

— The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will shift all undergraduate classes online, starting Wednesday, as the number of coronavirus cases on campus continues to grow, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told students and faculty Monday.

Four clusters – five or more cases – of the virus have been reported at two UNC-Chapel Hill residence halls, an off-campus apartment complex that caters to students and a fraternity since Friday. According to UNC-Chapel Hill data, 130 students and five employees tested positive for the virus between Aug. 10 and Sunday, and the 13.6 percent positive rate was the highest in weeks.

More than 500 students were either in isolation because they were infected or in quarantine because of possible exposure to the virus, Guskiewicz said, and some students are being housed in area hotels because there isn't enough isolation or quarantine space available on campus.

"At this point, I’d honestly rather do things online," said a UNC-Chapel Hill junior who has moved to a quarantine dorm and was getting tested for the virus on Monday.

"I definitely feel a little bit like I’ve lost my footing, I guess you could say. It’s a big change," the student said.

In an interview with WRAL News, Guskiewicz said he was "surprised at the velocity and magnitude" of the virus' spread after students engaged in risky behaviors off campus, such as large gatherings where they didn't wear masks or maintain any social distance.

"You didn’t listen to student leaders when we told you from the very beginning," senior Tamiya Troy said, noting she and other students lobbied administrators for months to keep classes online during the fall semester. "You brought us back here. You need to be able to take care of us in the safest way possible."

UNC-Chapel Hill officials will "strongly encourage" students to return to their homes and not linger around Chapel Hill, Guskiewicz said, to limit the number of people on campus. Parents were being notified of the change Monday evening, and the school was providing assistance to help students and their families move out in the coming days.

"[W]e expect the majority of our current undergraduate residential students to change their residential plans for the fall," he said in a statement. "We are working to identify additional effective ways to further achieve de-densification of our residential halls and our campus facilities. We will, again, open the opportunity for fall 2020 residence hall cancellation requests with no penalty."

Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Life Jonathan Sauls said officials would like to get dormitory capacity down to about 20 to 25 percent, or 1,500 to 2,000 students, by getting as many students that have to remain on campus into single-occupancy rooms. Closing off several dorms would add capacity for isolating and quarantining students, he said.

First-year student Chloe Horton said she was disappointed she won't get to experience college campus life for a while, but she agrees with the decision to move classes online and students out.

"I think the right move for the university initially was to not open at all," Horton said. "Back in July, the chancellor sent out emails saying their [coronavirus numbers weren't where they wanted them to be."

Carolina Allison, another first-year student, said she was "surprised, not shocked" by the move, noting that one of her in-person classes was canceled already because half of the students were in quarantine and the instructor was being tested for coronavirus.

Allison said she now worries about getting a refund on her fall semester room and board costs from the university.

"If they were to not give me a housing refund, financially, that will really mess up with my family," she said.

Guskiewicz said the decision to halt in-person classes wasn't taken lightly and took into account the health and safety of the Chapel Hill community in general, as well as student, faculty and staff on campus.

"We understand the concern and frustrations these changes will raise with many students and parents," he said. "As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, the current data presents an untenable situation. As we have always said, the health and safety of our campus community are paramount, and we will continue to modify and adapt our plan when necessary."

It's too early to determine what will happen with the spring semester, which starts in January, Guskiewicz and Provost Robert Blouin said.

UNC President Peter Hans said there are no current plans to shift classes at other campuses in the university system.

"Each campus is different, and I expect situations to evolve differently. In any circumstance, we will be grounded by reliable public health data and prevailing local health conditions," Hans said in a statement.

East Carolina University reported a cluster of virus cases in the Gateway Residence Hall on Monday evening. UNC-Wilmington officials said they "are closely observing our campus for similar trends, and we are prepared to pivot to an online modality should conditions warrant."

UNC-Chapel Hill's move comes hours after the dean of the school's Gillings School of Global Public Health and local officials called for moving all classes online to limit the spread of coronavirus.

"After only one week of campus operations, with growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others), it is time for an off-ramp. We have tried to make this work, but it is not working," Dean Barbara Rimer said in a blog.

"Clearly, the Carolina Together plan is not working," Chapel Hill Town Council members wrote in a letter to Guskiewicz, Blouin, Hans and Randy Ramsey, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. "We strongly believe that the University must be allowed to pursue the off-ramp to virtual learning, but we are, also, aware that even if campus closes, many students will remain in off-campus housing. Thus, addressing these issues is vital for the health and well-being of our community."

In recent weeks, the Orange County Health Department urged the university to hold off on any in-person classes for at least five weeks, and local officials called on administrators to crack down on students' behavior off campus after incidents of crowds of students without masks were reported.

"So many different groups, from faculty to students to staff, have expressed disappointment, and they’ve been saying from the get-go that this would be an unsafe decision – fully reopening wouldn’t be safe, it would be harmful for students," said Praveena Somasundaram, a reporter with The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.

"I know, when I went to class, there were arrows for places to walk, and I know that things are taped off so the seats are properly distanced, but that’s not necessarily the case at an off-campus house or anything or at an off-campus apartment complex," Somasundaram said. "It’s hard to shift blame on anyone, really, when the circumstances can be different in so many situations and there were a lot of people involved."

Hans urged students to follow public health advice to protect themselves and others.

"All students must continue to wear facial coverings and practice social distancing as part of their personal responsibility, particularly in off-campus settings," he said. "Taking personal responsibility and enforcing community standards are essential for the success of this semester and for protecting public health."