By Anne Blythe

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has long touted itself as a place where groundbreaking research occurs.

Six months into this coronavirus pandemic, the university conducted a live research project: Can an academic institution integrate more than 22,000 students in their late teens and early 20s back into a small college town and keep COVID-19 infection to a minimum?

In just one week, the results are in.

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A university that opened its doors wider to in-person learning and on-campus housing than many faculty and staff were comfortable with is reversing course quickly.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent a campus-wide email on Monday afternoon announcing that all in-person instruction for undergraduates will shift to remote learning on Wednesday. Because of that, campus leaders are encouraging students in on-campus housing to return to their hometowns and states if possible.

‘We all saw this coming’

An editorial in The Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper, summed up the feelings of many as COVID-19 cluster after cluster was reported: “We all saw this coming.”

The chancellor’s decision comes at the heels of a week in which testing for COVID-19 at the Campus Health center soared to a positivity rate of 13.6 percent from just 2.8 percent at the start of classes on Aug. 10. As of Monday morning, the campus had tested 954 students, with 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, on and off campus.

By Monday, four COVID-19 clusters, each consisting of five or more related cases, had been reported at Ehringhaus and Hinton James residence halls, private residence hall Granville Towers, and Sigma Nu fraternity house.

“Based on the significant upward trend of positive cases over the last week, we’ve been advised by our public health and infectious disease experts to modify fall plans by further de-densifying campus,” Guskiewicz told faculty at an emergency meeting of the Faculty Council Executive Committee late Monday afternoon.

The modifications were agreed to after the chancellor and his team had conversations with Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, Peter Hans, the new UNC system president, Orange County health department leaders and infectious disease experts at UNC Health.

Barbara Rimer, dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, published a blog post Monday morning calling for an end to the experiment.

She noted that faculty from her school had been providing advice to university leaders as plans were being made this summer.

“Our chancellor and provost tried to make decisions… with advice from some of the world’s best infectious disease experts. However, they have not had full freedom to act since the [Board of Governors] told system universities they had to reopen and that individual university chancellors could not make those decisions independently,” Rimer wrote.

Where’s the off ramp?

“This is certainly not what we were hoping for this fall semester,” Guskiewicz said at the meeting with faculty. “I’m terribly disappointed for those students who really want to be here and who have followed our community standards over these first two weeks.

“Our first priority has always been our community’s safety and we have always said we would respond to the situation as it evolved,” he added. “The situation has changed and we believe that taking these actions are necessary at this point.”

Students were sent home in the spring to finish their classes through online instruction when COVID-19 was spreading across the state and a stay-at-home order was put in place.

In May, UNC-CH officials began charting a Roadmap for Fall 2020 that called on students, faculty and staff to adhere to Community Standards, which included wearing face masks and other social distancing measures.

Though many students complied with the standards, reports surfaced during the week before classes and over the recent weekends of large parties in off-campus houses and apartment complex swimming pools.

shows a dashboard with numbers and pie charts tracking the number of COVID cases
Screenshot of the Carolina Together dashboard, as of Aug 17 at 3 pm.

“Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise,” the Daily Tar Heel editorial stated. “Though these students are not faultless, it was the University’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on.”

Conflict in the community

Orange County Health Department Director Quintana Stewart sent a letter to the chancellor and UNC leaders in late July asking them to delay in-person classes for at least five weeks, pushing the start-date into September.

Guskiewicz’s response to Stewart drew fire from the Faculty Council Executive Committee, which questioned why the health director’s information had not been shared immediately with the larger university community.

That committee had more questions for the chancellor, UNC-CH Provost Bob Blouin and housing officials.

The goal is to bring most residence halls down to 20 to 25 percent of their housing capacity, but the student exodus could happen in the coming days, perhaps even the next week.

Students who are in isolation or in quarantine inside dorms will be allowed to stay there until they are cleared to be in public again to try to limit further COVID-19 spread through Chapel Hill and across the state.

Campus officials recognize that other students might have hardships that require them to continue living on campus. Some might be from other countries or live in states that have restrictions about who can cross their borders.

Will students spread COVID back home?

Faculty asked whether the university would do mass testing before sending students out far and wide from campus.

Ken Pittman, executive director of Campus Health, said there were no plans to do so, that testing would only capture a moment and could lead to a false sense of security.

“Whenever you do any kind of a mass testing program and you obtain negative results, you have obtained negative results for that day,” Pittman said. “That really has nothing to do with whether or not they’re in an infectious period. Mass testing without having a period of time in which students did not return home after they were tested would be one of the more advisable things because I would hate for us to give students a sense of false security based on a one-day-in-time result.”

Infectious disease experts suggested that students who leave UNC-CH for their homes spend 14 days after their arrival quarantining in their homes. They encouraged wearing a face mask inside their homes and isolating themselves in a room away from others.

Can classes be paused?

Mimi Chapman, the UNC-CH faculty chair, led the meeting and shared questions she was receiving from others in the Zoom chatroom.

Many faculty suggested a pause on classes to give students time to prepare for trips back home and to give others a chance to move beyond what has been a stressful opening of the semester.

Neither the chancellor nor the provost embraced the idea. Nor did they rule out such a brief break.

“We’ve heard the suggestion and it’s helpful to hear the concern,” Guskiewicz said. “The challenge with a pause would be when do you implement it and for how long would you implement it.”

Throughout the pandemic, many have questioned the timing of key moves, and that was no different Monday, the end of the period designed for UNC-CH students to drop or add classes.

UNC officials have said students and their parents can get refunds for campus housing, but it was not as clear as to whether tuition refunds would be available for dropped classes.

The provost and chancellor said they would explore that.

‘We’re being mocked, the community is upset’

Faculty asked the chancellor and provost whether there were lessons learned from the two-week experiment that could help other universities in the UNC system or across the country as they weigh how to proceed in the pandemic.

Jennifer Larson, teaching associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the UNC-CH Department of English and Comparative Literature, said the experiment of the past two weeks has put the university in an awkward position with the town and the nation.

“We’re in the news everyday, we’re being mocked, the community is upset,” Larson said. “People are afraid to go to Franklin Street, I think they’re afraid to go out in the community, I just wonder what steps can we take to sort of repair, or start to repair these relationships and maybe even repair our national reputation.”

The chancellor said he planned to work to repair relationships and focus on a future that would bring similar questions about how to proceed with the spring semester later this year.

“I want to look forward,” Guzkiewicz said. “I want to look backward so we can learn from what we’ve gone through over the past several weeks. But we do have to look forward, and forward means we have an awful lot of this semester left. Let’s be honest and my goal is to make sure this is a successful semester for our students, our faculty and our staff.”

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.