UNC abruptly halts in-person classes after coronavirus outbreak on campus
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UNC abruptly halts in-person classes after coronavirus outbreak on campus

Students walk past Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jonathan Drake | Reuters

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Monday it is canceling in-person undergraduate classes and shifting them entirely to remote learning after a coronavirus outbreak quickly spread across campus just two weeks after students returned for the fall semester. 

University administrators made the announcement just a week after classes began at the campus, which has roughly 30,000 students. The entire UNC system has more than 200,000 students, but university officials said the decision applies just to its Chapel Hill campus, which was one of the largest universities in the country to decide to hold in-person classes for the fall semester amid the pandemic.

The school said in a statement Monday that the Covid-19 “positivity” rate jumped to 13.6% as of Sunday from 2.8% a week before. Some 135 students and staff tested positive over the last week, according to the university’s online coronavirus dashboard.

“As of this morning, we have tested 954 students and have 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, both on and off campus,” UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewiczand provost, Robert Blouin, said in a statement. The university has just four remaining quarantine rooms, according to its online coronavirus dashboard, which was updated earlier Monday.

“Most students” who have tested positive have experienced just “moderate” symptoms, according to the statement.

Due to the rise in cases, the university will shift all undergraduate in-person courses at its Chapel Hill campus to remote learning by Wednesday, the university said. Courses in the graduate, professional and health affairs schools will “continue to be taught as they are, or as directed by the schools.”

The university didn’t say if remote learning would be in place all semester, but offered to cancel residence hall reservations without penalty. Guskiewicz said later Monday on a Zoom call with faculty that classes will remain remote through the semester and that it is “too early to tell” for the next semester, which begins in January.

“We understand the concern and frustrations these changes will raise with many students and parents,” Guskiewicz and Blouin said in their statement. “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.”

University and school administrators are watching the situation at UNC and other universities that have already brought students back to campus for any indication of how and whether schools can safely resume in-person learning. 

Since last week, the university has disclosed at least four clusters of infections that were traced back to residence halls and a fraternity, according to student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel

Blouin added on the Zoom call that compliance with public health guidance such as mask wearing and social distancing on campus has been “extraordinarily high.” 

“We do have the expectations that students will maintain their compliance with our community standards whether they’re on campus or off campus, particularly in the town of Chapel Hill,” he said. “But that is something that has been very difficult for us to enforce unless there is an actual citation, or a complaint, that is made with respect to that student.”

Blouin added that there are “no examples” of students infecting faculty, nor of faculty infecting students.

“When we do the contact tracing, we get those reports, what we have found is that most of the transmissions have been within the social sphere, campus life,” he said. Guskiewicz echoed Blouin’s point that most of the spread occurred off campus, where administrators “have very little control.”

Now, as many students prepare to return home, Guskiewicz encouraged all students who believe they have been exposed to the virus or to an infected person to visit campus health to receive testing. Kenneth Pittman, executive directors of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus health, said on the call that the university will provide testing for symptomatic students and asymptomatic students who have come into contact with an infected person. He added that the university will not conduct “mass testing,” adding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would not advice that.”

“I would hate for us to give students a sense of false security based on a one day in time result prior to their arriving at home,” Pittman said.

Dr. Joseph Eron, chief of infectious diseases at UNC’s School of Medicine, said that students should self-quarantine and wear a mask at home with their parents in order to “be completely safe.” He added that testing, on its own, does not protect people, though he said he would not advise against students seeking out testing.

Also on the call, administrators declined to say conclusively whether they would extend the deadline to withdraw from the university for the semester and recoup their tuition. Questions submitted to the moderator of the call said the deadline to withdraw was 5 p.m. on Monday.

Earlier Monday, Barbara Rimer, dean of public health at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in a statement that “it is time for an off-ramp.”

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

And last month, a group of faculty members penned an open letter in The Charlotte Observer that asked 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.” 

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