This story has been updated with additional details and ran in the August 19 issue of the INDY. 

The Orange County Board of Health had warned UNC-Chapel Hill administration not to bring students back to campus. Nevertheless, over the summer—under directives from the UNC Board of Governors—university officials launched a “Roadmap” approach to the pandemic and, in early August, cars descended on Chapel Hill. Undergraduates cautiously moved into dorms. 

It did not take long for things to change course: A week into classes, on Monday, August 17, the university announced that classes will move online, effective August 19. 

The announcement was made in an email around 3:45 p.m. on Monday afternoon, less than two hours before a 5 p.m. deadline for fall tuition. According to the registrar’s office, withdrawal refunds are reduced to 80 percent after August 17. 

“We have emphasized that if we were faced with the need to change plans—take an off-ramp — we would not hesitate to do so, but we have not taken this decision lightly,” the email from chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stated, adding that the university is moving quickly toward “de-densification” and expects the “majority of undergraduate residential students to change their residential plans for the fall.” 

According to the email, international students, athletes, and students without home resources like reliable Internet will have the option to remain on campus; all other students can cancel their residence hall contracts without penalty. 

The university athletic season will proceed, according to a statement from UNC Athletics, despite the de-densification of campus and shift to remote classes. In early July, 37 positive cases were identified among athletes, coaches, and staff. 

“From early on in the roadmap planning, our infectious disease colleagues told us that clusters would be a warning that off ramps should be considered,” Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, said at an emergency faculty meeting held Monday afternoon. “We’re at such a consideration point, a week into classes. It is a serious and sobering moment.”

Classes at the state’s flagship university—one of the largest universities in the country to reconvene for the fall, with 5,800 students in campus housing—began August 10. The first week proved disastrous. 

Over the weekend, four COVID-19 clusters were reported in the span of three days. On Friday, two clusters—one at private residence hall Granville Towers and another at first-year residence hall Ehringhaus—were reported by campus alerts, followed by a confirmed outbreak at Sigma Nu fraternity house on Saturday and one at Hinton James Residence Hall on Sunday. On Monday afternoon, the university updated its dashboard.

Going into the weekend, the dashboard had listed 11 new cases for the week of August 3; by Monday, that number had spiked. Out of the 954 students who received tests from campus health last week,130 tested positive. Five employees also tested positive. This brought the student positivity rate up to 13.6 percent. 

Things moved quickly, after the weekend. Barbara Rimer, dean of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, joined the chorus of faculty calling for the university to move to online classes, writing, ““We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.” Student newspaper The Daily Tarheel was blunter, with a blistering Monday morning editorial and a headline that would go on to make national news: “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.”

“We all saw this coming,” the editorial read. 

The other 16 UNC system schools will stay in-person, according to the chancellor’s announcement. UNC-Chapel Hill’s graduate schools will continue on a case-by-case basis, and research will continue. 

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

There has been unrest across the system, however. At Eastern Carolina University, campus police reported shutting down as many as 20 parties, the week of August 5; the largest of which was attended by an estimated 400 students. News of a COVID-19 cluster at ECU broke on Monday morning, August 17. That same day, across the state, faculty senate at Appalachian State University—where a COVID-19 outbreak had recently been confirmed—passed a vote of no-confidence in chancellor Sheri Everts. 

In Chapel Hill, the tense Monday afternoon virtual faculty meeting quickly met its 500-person capacity to discuss how it would handle the quick shift to online classes, as students vacated campus and returned home. During a question-and-answer portion of that meeting, executive vice chancellor and provost Robert Blouin stated that all students who were in isolation and quarantine—177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, as of August 17—would not go home and out into the community until it was safe to do so.

However, Ken Pittman, director of UNC Campus Health, stated there is no plan for mass testing before students return home. That stance reflects UNC’s earlier decision not to mandate mass testing, upon student arrival to campus. Nearby colleges like Duke, however, had mandated mass testing—and had moved students who tested positive immediately to quarantine zones. 

Pittman recommended that students quarantine upon returning home, but stated that on-campus testing was recommended for students who are symptomatic or who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. 

When pressed about refund extensions for withdrawals, at the end of the meeting, chancellor Guskiewicz did indicate flexibility. 

“We will work with that deadline,” Guskiewicz said. “We were notified of that yesterday, and we won’t hold to that deadline.” 

Just last week, The Washington Post visited campus and highlighted some of the preventive measures that the university had put into place, writing that UNC was providing “an early glimpse of what higher education looks like in Pandemic America at a prominent state university.” 

That glimpse proved fleeting. 

During a tense portion of the meeting, Monday afternoon, provost Robert Blouin defended the university’s initial decision to proceed with the roadmap. 

“I don’t apologize for trying,” he said.

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