The Daily Tar Heel editorial board summed up student feelings toward UNC-Chapel Hill’s first days of the fall 2020 semester succinctly: “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.”

The timing couldn’t have been better; the expletive graced the student newspaper’s August 17 edition the same day the university would announce its move to remote-only instruction after just a week of in-person classes. Four “clusters,” or groupings of five cases or more, had been identified in dorms and more were on the horizon. The university’s positivity rate spiked to a startling 13.6 percent in a matter of days, and a video of sorority girls walking in a group—presumably to a party—without masks had gone viral days before.

It was a clusterfuck. It was also a national embarrassment for the school, especially after Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin told the Faculty Executive Committee that he didn’t “apologize for trying” to have an in-person semester.

Now, as undergraduate students close their laptops and head back to their loved ones after their exams, the conversation about spring semester looms over UNC. The school has made it clear they don’t intend to repeat the fall; they’ve gathered a new roadmap committee, changed testing procedures, and are offering new ways for students to report positive cases, as well as violations of community standards. But with the number of positive cases continuing to spike in the state and across the country, many are still wary of what the next semester could bring.

On October 23, the university announced a back-to-school plan, saying that re-entry testing would be required for students headed back to campus next semester and that testing would continue throughout the upcoming semester. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz repeated this in a UNC Board of Trustees meeting on November 12.

“We know a lot more today about testing than what we did three or four months ago, and so that has informed our decision making,” Guskiewicz said in a press conference that day. “We’ve looked at what has worked well and what’s not worked well for other institutions around the country.”

One school they may be referring to is a few miles down the road. Duke University has been praised nationally for its small number of cases, which has been attributed to an “aggressive” effort to test students and have them self-monitor their symptoms. The effort paid off: only 84 COVID-19 cases have been recorded over the semester.

UNC plans to take a similar approach in the spring—students will have multiple testing sites on campus, and will be able to conduct these tests on their own with instructions provided through an app. Guskiewicz told the trustees that there will also be a lab on campus to process these tests, instead of sending them off to the state laboratory. The frequency of testing and locations of these sites have not been determined.

Amir Barzin, the medical director of UNC Family Medicine and the head of UNC’s testing site at the Respiratory Care Center in Chapel Hill, will be heading the university’s testing efforts, according to the school. Previously, testing efforts were led by UNC Campus Health, with only one testing facility available on campus for almost 20,000 undergraduate students.

In the fall, the university’s first “roadmap committee” was notable for who it lacked. Students told the INDY in July that they were concerned that no UNC students were part of the group. The university’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion reached out to the school administration around the same time to express that their concerns and suggestions had been ignored. Their spring semester COVID-19 response team has several student leaders, staff representatives, and community members.

The week the school reopened, a letter from the Orange County Health Department was published, exposing their recommendation that the university begin the semester online, and work to “de-densify” its residence halls. Now, the county’s communicable disease team has continued to meet weekly with school officials.

“I think there were several lessons learned from the fall reopening that have positively informed plans and decisions for the spring reopening,” Quintana Stewart, the director of Orange County’s health department, said in a Friday email to the INDY.

The unveiling of UNC’s plan to return to in-person learning comes as cases nationally spiral uncontrollably. At the beginning of this month, the U.S. reported 100,000 daily COVID-19 cases for the first time. Just a couple weeks later, we’re on track to report double that figure, according to the New York Times.

Some Wake County public school students returned to in-person classes on October 26, but 42 new school cases were reported this week, the News & Observer reported. On Thursday, the Durham school board voted to return elementary school students to in-person classes starting in January.

North Carolinians aged 18-24 currently make up 16 percent of positive COVID-19 cases statewide, according to the state health department. That’s more than the percentage of COVID-positive cases who are 65 or older. Meanwhile, 25-49-year-olds account for a whopping 40 percent of positive coronavirus cases in North Carolina.

Almost 1,600 people are currently hospitalized with COVID in the state, and nearly 5,000 people have died in North Carolina, the state health department reports. Nationally, the virus’ death toll has crossed 252,000, and close to 12 million Americans have tested positive, according to the New York Times.

A lot can happen between now and the start of UNC’s spring semester. School administrators appear decidedly more prepared this time around, and Duke’s model may be promising. But with such high stakes—the virus claimed the life of a UNC System student at Appalachian State this semester even though he was taking classes remotely—the question remains; will it be enough?


Follow Digital Content Manager Sara Pequeño on Twitter or send an email to spequeno@indyweek.com

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