UNC-Chapel Hill Cancels In-Person Classes. Staff and Faculty Fume It Didn’t Come Sooner.

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 18, 2020, file photo, people remove belongings on campus at UNC-Chapel Hill, amid the coronavirus pandemic. NC's flagship university moved all classes online and plans to send thousands of students home after several coronavirus hotspots developed on campus in the last week. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

By Jesse James DeConto

August 17, 2020

‘We’re being mocked,’ one professor vents as coronavirus hotspots emerge on Chapel Hill campus.

After coronavirus clusters emerged in three dorms and a fraternity house over the past week, UNC-Chapel Hill officials say they will move all classes online for the fall semester and send 4,000 undergraduates home to cut on-campus housing occupancy below 25%.

While many universities across the U.S. delayed or cancelled in-person classes in favor of remote learning, the UNC System reopened its campuses this month with a hybrid plan, despite strong opposition from some workers and local communities

“We’re in the news every day,” said literature professor Jennifer Larson, undergraduate studies director in the UNC-Chapel Hill English Department. “We’re being mocked. The community is upset. People are afraid to go to Franklin Street. They’re afraid to go out in the community. What are the steps we can take to repair those relationships, maybe even repair our national reputation?”

“We have work to do,” acknowledged UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, speaking in a virtual meeting of the Faculty Executive Committee Monday afternoon. “This has been one of the most, if not the most trying time, of my professional career.” 

Approximately 8,000 on-campus beds had been at about 70% capacity after students moved back to Chapel Hill in early August. The rate of positive coronavirus tests on campus nearly quadrupled to more than 13% over the past week, Guskiewicz said. That’s 130 out of 954 students tested, and after contact-tracing, the university has 526 students in isolation or quarantine. 

Jonathan Sauls, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, said the university will refund room and board and will ask most students to leave residence halls. 

“What we have observed was this high level of compliance within the boundaries of campus. It’s the socialization that began to take place outside of the borders of campus and then bringing that back into the residence halls.”

– UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz 

Single occupancy rooms in suite-style dorms will reduce the sharing of bathrooms in order to accommodate a small number of students with special circumstances. Those would include international students, athletes in training and those who might have vulnerable family members living at home. 

Campus health officials and a trio of renowned UNC epidemiologists affirmed Guskiewicz’s claim that on campus, throughout the summer and into the fall semester, students had been wearing face masks and practicing social distancing on campus.

“It sounds like in classrooms people have been really abiding by community standards,” said Joseph Eron, chief of infectious diseases at the UNC Department of Medicine. 

“What we have observed was this high level of compliance within the boundaries of campus,” said Guskiewicz. “It’s the socialization that began to take place outside of the borders of campus and then bringing that back into the residence halls.” 

At least five students in each of three dorms and a fraternity house tested positive for a coronavirus infection.

“The compliance on campus has been extraordinarily high,” said UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Robert Blouin. “Where we have not done as well is off-campus. What we have found is that most of the transmissions have been within the social sphere of campus life. That is something that has been very difficult for us to enforce. 

“Of course many people anticipated that and felt that that would be one of the challenges,” Blouin said. “I don’t apologize for trying, for giving this campus the opportunity to return to its mission.

We were expecting a somewhat different picture.”

Larson and others questioned whether families would be safe bringing potentially infected students back into their homes. 

“I’m just hearing from a lot of stressed out, nervous, scared folks,” she said. “I think people are really concerned about going home. We’re sending them back into these far reaches of North Carolina and elsewhere having left what is essentially a hotspot. We have students who have to rethink everything, and then also we have a potentially major shift in family dynamics and lots of other fears coming up.” 

Eron and his infectious-disease colleagues said students should quarantine using masks and distancing for 14 days, either at home or on campus before returning home. 

“There actually is good evidence from China that this sort of self-quarantine within homes actually is quite protective for other people living in the home as well,” said David Weber, associate chief medical officer for UNC Healthcare.

His colleague Myron Cohen, who directs the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, added that these disruptions, quarantines, social-distancing, hand-washing and facemasks aren’t going away. 

“We have no idea if a vaccine is going to be effective,” he said. “Our experience this week is our new normal, and we need to adapt to it.” 


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