UNC-Chapel Hill fall semester going online amid COVID-19 outbreaks, one week into classes

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday became the first major college to pivot to online classes after reopening in person. The reversal took one week.

Since the university started courses in person Aug. 10, it has reported at least four clusters of outbreaks of COVID-19 in student living spaces. Undergraduate courses will go remote Wednesday, and the university said it will reduce the density in its dorms.

UNC was one of the first and largest universities to bring students back to campus for in-person classes. It was under close scrutiny as a potential harbinger for other institutions planning on resuming face-to-face instruction this month or next.

Many universities that had planned on bringing students back for the fall semester have canceled or heavily modified those plans in recent weeks. Hundreds are still planning to reopen in person, citing reasons that range from students’ wishes to their educational mission to the university’s financial situation.

“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,” wrote the university’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, and its provost, Robert Blouin, in a message to the campus. “The health and safety of our campus community are paramount.” 

UNC’s Chapel Hill campus reported 130 student cases in the past week, a significant increase from the 10 cases it reported on campus in the week leading up to the start of class. 

Many students had already moved into residential halls, and they are likely to move out. “We expect the majority of our current undergraduate residential students to change their residential plans for the fall,” the chancellor and provost said in their statement. 

Reaction to the outbreaks was swift, especially within the UNC community. Barbara Rimer, the dean of the university’s school of public health, earlier Monday had called for a switch to remote operations. 

“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,” Rimer said. “We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.”

The road to reopening has been long and rocky for North Carolina’s flagship university. Local county health officials had advised in July that the university start the semester with online instruction and that student housing be limited to those most in need.

Guskiewicz said he met with local health officials about the university’s plans and the campus made progress in complying with the county’s general recommendations.

“Soon after, I discussed this matter with the UNC System and we were advised by the UNC System to stay the course with our current plan,” Guskiewicz said in a statement. 

A collection of staff and faculty groups has sued the University of North Carolina system over what they say are unsafe working conditions. 

 A group of faculty members also wrote an open letter that ran in The Charlotte Observer, asking undergraduates to stay home “in order to protect yourselves and your fellow students, your teachers, the many workers who serve you on campus, the residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and your own family members and loved ones.” 

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UNC Chapel Hill COVID cases put fall semester online, one week in

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