Shutdown, Repeat

They came. They saw. They clustered. Now, a week after starting classes at UNC Chapel Hill, undergraduates are being sent home as coronavirus spreads on campus.

August 18, 2020
 
Zoom
UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz addresses the Faculty Executive Committee Monday.

Just days after welcoming students to campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday told undergraduates to move out of their dorms, go back home and prepare to complete all their courses online.

The déjà vu-style announcement came as the university updated its COVID-19 “dashboard” for the first week of the semester. Between Aug. 10 and 16, Chapel Hill tested 954 students for coronavirus. Some 130 tested positive, along with five employees. With those tests, the university's virus positivity rate shot up from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent. Some 177 students were in isolation and 349 were quarantined. The university had just four empty rooms left in quarantine, meaning 69 were occupied.

Previously, Chapel Hill reported that it had identified four “clusters” of five or more related COVID-19 cases, all linked to dormitories and Greek housing. Most students have mild symptoms, according to the university.

In an emergency meeting between Chapel Hill administrators and the Faculty Council's executive committee on Monday afternoon, professors expressed some frustration with the university’s decision to reopen campus at all. Several asked for a reprieve for both themselves and their students, to prepare for all-remote instruction and deal with the general chaos of the moment.

“We were told we might need to switch, but I don’t think anybody was prepared to switch this quickly,” said Jennifer Larson, a teaching associate professor of English. “I echo the need for this pause so that faculty can look after their students and care for themselves at this time.”

Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other administrators on the Zoom call said they’d look into pausing classes. The campus is scheduled to go entirely virtual on Wednesday. Currently 57 percent of course sections are meeting face-to-face or in a hybrid format.

Students learned of Chapel Hill’s plans after 3 p.m. and were expected to start moving out of their dorms immediately. Those who cannot go home or study from home for a variety of reasons may be permitted to stay, but the university is looking to shrink its residence hall capacity to around 20 percent, to allow more students to live alone. It’s possible that some residence halls will be “taken off-line” completely, said Jonathan Sauls, associate vice chancellor for student affairs. Chapel Hill originally planned to reopen dorms at full capacity despite health guidance against that model, but capacity was reduced to about 60 percent on the main campus and 77 percent in the Granville Towers complex by this week, with students canceling contracts and already opting to study from home.

Larson also wondered during the meeting how the university might try to repair its reputation nationally and locally, where groups of students have been observed hanging out without masks, according to social media posts. The campus has been the site of one of the biggest faculty movements against reopening, with North Carolina case counts growing over the summer. A group of tenured faculty members wrote an open letter to students last month urging them not to return to the campus and to study from home instead. The UNC system, which had insisted that all its 16 campuses reopen, is also facing a class-action worker safety lawsuit.

“I don’t apologize for trying to give this campus the opportunity to return to its mission on behalf of the people of North Carolina,” said Bob Blouin, the provost at Chapel Hill. If earlier assumptions about how infection rates would taper off over the summer had been correct, he said, the university would have had a “high shot of making this.”

Guskiewicz and Blouin said during the meeting that contract tracing revealed virtually no spread in classrooms or research spaces, and that adherence to mask wearing and social distancing was widespread on campus.

'The Socialization Piece'

Instead, Guskiewicz said, “it’s the socialization piece that began to take place outside of campus, and [students] bringing it back to the residence halls.”

“We tried to move forward. We put a plan in place,” he said.

Now, the university has to move in another direction.

“This thing’s not going away,” he said of the coronavirus.

Myron Cohen, associate vice chancellor for global health, said the university didn’t anticipate the “velocity” of the viral spread as thousands upon thousands of undergraduates returned.

In any case, he said, "We face what we face at this moment in time."

If students' off-campus socialization was the surprise flaw in Chapel Hill’s plan, others -- on campus and off -- foresaw the grave risk in entrusting a community’s safety to residential undergraduates.

Over the weekend, Chapel Hill's student newspaper ran an editorial called "We All Saw This Coming."

Earlier on Monday, Barbara K. Rimer, Chapel Hill's dean of public health, published an essay urging the university to consider taking an "off-ramp" to remote instruction.

The "number of clusters is growing and soon could become out of control, threatening the health of others on campus and in the community and putting scarce resources at risk," Rimer wrote. "While it appeared that students on campus were compliant with distancing and mask use, reports of off-campus behavior showed a different pattern -- drinking, no masks or distancing and crowds."

She added, "We have tried to make this work, but it is not working."

Several faculty members asked during the meeting how the university will better enforce social distancing for those students who do remain in and around campus. No one had precise answers, but Blouin said it will involve somehow creating "an accountability environment off campus.”

“What’s going to have to happen is the community is going to have to accept some shared responsibility in that regard,” he added. Chapel Hill already requires students to pledge to practice COVID-19 safety measures.

Chapel Hill will refund all room and board fees to students who leave campus over the next few days. Blouin said the university is looking into extending its tuition refund window to beyond Monday, the same day the campus de-densification plan was announced, for students who want to leave and unenroll.

Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine, said during the meeting that amid doubts about the value of a remote semester, “it would be helpful if the university should not see it so much as failure but as an alternative that best meets” various campus constituencies’ needs.

“Some messaging from the top and the middle would be helpful there,” in terms of student and public perception, Estroff added. “This is not a situation that any of us wanted, but it would be a mistake not to recognize that everybody is working harder at pedagogy now” than ever before.

More information from the university is expected in the coming days. Graduate, professional and health affairs courses will continue as planned, or as directed by individual schools. Terry Ellen Rhodes, dean of arts and sciences, wrote to graduate students to say that professors will be granted flexibility in how they teach their courses.

Sherryl Kleinman, professor emeritus of sociology at Chapel Hill, and a critic of the university’s reopening, said following the meeting that even now the university’s plan "falls far short of what is needed." The institutions can't control "the density of fraternity or sorority houses, those living in apartments in Chapel Hill and [nearby] Carrboro, N.C., and not even in dorms on campus," as departures are apparently voluntary.

“Athletics may well continue,” she added. “Guskiewicz and Blouin should be working with the chancellors and provosts at all other UNC campuses to pressure the Board of Governors to return to the arrangements in March,” when campuses effectively shut down.

Peter Hans, the UNC system's president, said in a written statement that there are "no easy answers as the nation navigates through the pandemic. At this point we haven’t received any information that would lead to similar modifications at any of our other universities."

Whether at Chapel Hill or another institution, he said, "students must continue to wear facial coverings and maintain social distancing, as their personal responsibility, particularly in off-campus settings, is critical to the success of this semester and to protect public health."

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