UNC Pulls the Plug on In-Person Fall. Will Other Campuses Follow?
The move comes after a three-day stretch during which the university saw three separate clusters of coronavirus infections in residence halls, plus one cluster in a fraternity house. In total,
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The move comes after a three-day stretch during which the university saw three separate clusters of coronavirus infections in residence halls, plus one cluster in a fraternity house. In total, 135 students and staff tested positive for the coronavirus last week.
UNC’s quick switch online is a jarring about-face, and may portend grim news for other campuses.
“As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation,” Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the chancellor, and Robert A. Blouin, the executive vice chancellor, wrote in the announcement.
UNC’s quick switch online is a jarring about-face, and may portend grim news for other campuses that have chosen to open for in-person activities amid high coronavirus infection rates around the country.
“I don’t think it’s surprising we’re seeing cases crop up,” Todd McGee, a spokesperson for Orange County, N.C., said in an interview before the university announced it would go online. He pointed out that the university brought together thousands of students from around the state and country, where they might have had higher case rates, and then put them into shared living spaces. Some students most likely arrived infected, and then, before they started feeling symptoms that might have prompted them to get tested, spread the virus to others.
The county health department had urged UNC to move to all-online classes, or at least delay the start of the semester to allow the agency and university time to see what happens after undergraduates returned. With the influx of students, “we could quickly become a hot spot for new cases,” Quintana Stewart, Orange County’s health director, wrote at the time. Before the mass return of students to UNC, the county had seen only occasional clusters of cases, McGee said.
“A lot of universities will learn from our experience last week,” said Myron Cohen, director of UNC’s institute for global health and infectious diseases and one of the public-health faculty who worked on the campus’s return-to-fall plan, during a meeting of the faculty executive committee late Monday afternoon.
In May the university announced its “roadmap” to resume in-person operations. But as some students and faculty pushed back on the plan’s feasibility, it became clear that Chapel Hill leaders were working under a system mandate. In July the chair of the system’s governing board, Randy Ramsey, wrote in an email to the university chancellors that they alone did not have the authority to take operations online.
North Carolina’s legislature, which has been controlled by Republicans since 2010, appoints members to the UNC Board of Governors.
Guskiewicz, Chapel Hill’s chancellor, publicly acknowledged that he did not have sole authority to close the campus if needed. But he stressed that the fall plan was driven by public-health concerns, not necessity.
As the campus’s early-August move-in approached, students, faculty, and employees got more anxious. In late July, 30 tenured faculty penned an open letter asking students not to come to campus even as the university went ahead with reopening. “Under current conditions, it is not safe for you to come to campus — to live in dormitories and apartments, to sit in classrooms, and to socialize with your peers in the way that college students usually do,” they wrote.
Just two days after move-in began, The Chronicle and local news outlets reported that UNC’s own local health department had urged it to, at the very least, delay its in-person reopening. Administrators resisted the call, with the provost saying that the university was actually following the health department’s recommendation “in spirit.”
The university’s first piece of alarming news came Friday, after just five days of classes, when it alerted the campus to a cluster of coronavirus infections, defined as five or more related cases, in a residence hall. In just 72 hours, one cluster became four, and the university on Monday disclosed a rapid spike in positive diagnoses.
Reports followed of anxious students standing in line to get tested and moving out of residence halls, hastening calls for Guskiewicz to call off in-person learning. Barbara K. Rimer, dean of UNC’s public-health school, added her voice to the chorus Monday afternoon, publicly declaring, “We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.”
“When we do the contact tracing, when we get those reports, what we have found is that most of the transmissions have been within the social sphere of campus life,” he said during the faculty executive meeting held right after the remote-learning announcement. “That has been really challenging for us to manage and to hold people to the level of accountability that we probably needed to.”
The university has not seen any coronavirus transmission between students and faculty members, nor transmission associated with lab work, Blouin said. In addition, he said that during classes, student cooperation with campus rules about mask-wearing and social distancing has been “extraordinarily high.”
Cohen’s assessment of the situation was not as pointed. “What we’re suffering on the campus is a microcosm of the United States,” he said. “We’ve talked endlessly about the United States’ problem, and maybe it’s not shocking that on the campus, we cannot avoid a more general U.S. problem where prevention activities at the structural behavioral level have not proven as successful as we need them to be.”
Now that UNC has moved to an online fall semester, questions remain. Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty, asked campus leaders in the faculty meeting if there could be a few days’ break in instruction, to give instructors time to recover mentally and emotionally from UNC’s turbulent fall start. Guskiewicz didn’t answer.
Students now must pack up and go home. Once there, Joseph Eron, chief of the infectious-diseases division at the UNC School of Medicine, recommended that they quarantine themselves for a time, away from their family members. They should stay in a separate room, wash their hands frequently, and wear a mask around the house. “They should not expose themselves to their parents or their grandparents,” he said. “That’s the way to be completely safe.” After all, they would be returning from something of a coronavirus hot spot.
The chancellor and provost stopped short of saying they were sorry for the reversal. “I don’t apologize for trying,” Blouin said, “for giving this campus the chance to return to its mission on behalf of the interests of the people of North Carolina.”
Other institutions in the UNC system will continue with their plans for in-person operations.