State officials address the spread of COVID-19 at universities

BOONE, N.C. — On Wednesday, state officials addressed the rise in COVID-19 cases in colleges and universities across the state.

Appalachian State University announced Tuesday it is suspending football practice after a cluster of COVID-19 cases, which is associated with the team, officials said.

Seven students and four staff make up the cluster, officials said.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services defines a cluster as five cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.

“AppHealthCare has been in contact with the individuals, who have been instructed to recover in isolation. Public health staff have identified close contacts, who have been instructed to quarantine and who are being provided access to testing during their quarantine period,” university officials said in a news release. “A close contact is defined as someone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.”

The university suspended practice until further consultation warrants a change in the status.

Read more from App State officials here.

State Secretary Mandy Cohen shared insight Wednesday on where those clusters likely came from.

“In my conversations with some of the chancellors and other presidents that they are saying the clusters are in two veins,” Cohen said. “Some of them are among athletic teams that have been practicing together and have been on campus for longer.”

Cohen said other college clusters are reportedly from living the college life, such as going to parties.

“Enforcement does jump to the top of that list for me in prevention,” Cohen said. “How do we prevent the spread of the virus in the first place?”

Enforcement means wearing masks and preventing mass gatherings.

At UNCC, officials said on-campus gatherings will be dispersed.

They also encourage students to report dangerous activity through the app LiveSafe.

Gov. Roy Cooper said enforcement can’t stop there.

“I know our secretary of Public Safety has sent a message to all campus police and all chiefs in these towns where these universities are,” Cooper said. “That is so important to enforce the rules.”

In-person instruction is still part of UNCC’s curriculum.

Students have until Friday to cancel housing contracts.

Johnson C. Smith University leaders canceled in-person instruction.

App State faculty senate passes vote of no-confidence in school chancellor

The faculty senate at Appalachian State University — part of the 17-member UNC system — passed a vote of no-confidence in school chancellor Sheri Everts on Monday, in large part for failing to shut down the campus after a recent COVID-19 outbreak.

The vote came after more than two hours of debate.

According to The Appalachian, Michael Behrent, chair of the faculty senate, began the meeting by clarifying that a resolution of no confidence doesn’t mean a resignation from the chancellor, but is instead symbolic. The senate approved the resolution of no confidence with 23 votes in favor, 12 against and 6 abstained.

Professors have “moved from a concern about people’s livelihoods and the institution’s reputation to, now, a concern for people’s lives,” the declaration read.

Over the past five days, the number of active COVID-19 cases has more than doubled on campus, from 22 to 47. The university said during pop-up testing that more than 2,000 residence hall students were tested and 28 -- or 1.3% -- were positive.

Everts said in a letter to faculty Monday night that she has received support from the school’s Board of Trustees, including a July 6 resolution of confidence in her leadership.

Read more here.

“We are in constant communications with UNC System officials, as well as our local public health experts, to monitor conditions on campus, and there are no immediate plans to change our course delivery methods at App State,” she said in the email.

Also mentioned in that email was that both App State and Boone police are making sure there aren’t large gatherings or parties. One fraternity, Delta Chi, has already been suspended pending an investigation for failure to follow the Joint Council Safety Statement regarding off-campus gatherings.

Universities scramble to deal with virus outbreaks

North Carolina’s flagship university canceled in-person classes for undergraduates just a week into the fall semester Monday as college campuses around the U.S. scramble to deal with coronavirus clusters linked in some cases to student housing, off-campus parties and packed bars.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said it will switch to remote learning on Wednesday and make arrangements for students who want to leave campus housing.

[READ MORE: Chapel Hill went full remote and local students want UNCC to follow suit]

“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,” it said in a statement after reporting 130 confirmed infections among students and five among employees over the past week.

UNC said the clusters were discovered in dorms, a fraternity house and other student housing.

Before the decision came down, the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, ran an editorial headlined, “UNC has a clusterf—k on its hands,” though without the dashes.

The paper said that the parties that took place over the weekend were no surprise and that administrators should have begun the semester with online-only instruction at the university, which has 19,000 undergraduates.

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

Outbreaks earlier this summer at fraternities in Washington state, California and Mississippi provided a glimpse of the challenges school officials face in keeping the virus from spreading on campuses where young people eat, live, study — and party — in close quarters.

The virus has been blamed for over 170,000 deaths and 5.4 million confirmed infections in the U.S.

Meanwhile, officials at another UNC school — East Carolina University — said Monday that they had identified a COVID-19 cluster at a dorm. They didn’t say whether they were considering switching to online classes.

Many schools already have flipped from in-person classes to mainly online in recent weeks, and more are expected to do so, said David Long of Tuscany Strategy Consulting, which teamed up with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to develop reopening recommendations for colleges and universities.

“It’s because it’s so difficult to create these systems where everybody is essentially behaving appropriately, meaning social distancing, wearing PPE and not gathering in groups,” he said, referring to personal protective equipment. “It’s challenging when you’re trying to control behavior in young adults, particularly in areas that are outside the classroom and off campus.”

Balancing the health risks with educating students has been keeping university presidents up at night, said Mildred García, head of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. She said many are reconsidering their plans as things change rapidly.

“They are doing the best they can with their staff and trying to educate the students about masks and social distancing and the effects of this virus,” she said. “They’re doing all they can — and yet these are young people. When we think back about when we were young, sometimes you think you’re invincible.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this article.)