UNC-Chapel Hill shifts entirely to remote classes as campus virus crisis grows

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz announced on Monday that, effective Wednesday, Aug. 19, all undergraduate in-person instruction will shift to remote learning.

The move comes as the number of coronavirus cases on campus continues to grow, Guskiewicz told students and faculty Monday.

Because of the announcement, as well as the reduction of campus activities, the university expects the majority of its current undergraduate residential students to change their housing plans for the fall. Some students are being housed in area hotels because there isn’t enough isolation or quarantine space available on campus, Guskiewicz said.

”Since launching the Roadmap for Fall 2020, 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,” said Guskiewicz. “We are working to identify additional effective ways to further achieve de-densification of our residential halls and our campus facilities. We will, again, open the opportunity for fall 2020 residence hall cancellation requests with no penalty.”

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”There are no easy answers as the nation navigates through the pandemic,” said UNC System President Peter Hans. “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, 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.”

After four separate COVID-19 clusters were identified at UNC-Chapel Hill over the weekend, the dean of one of the highest-ranking schools of public health in the country said the return of students to campus isn’t working.

[RELATED: Fourth cluster of COVID-19 cases reported in UNC-Chapel Hill housing]

In a newsletter called “Monday Morning,” Dean of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Barbara Rimer wrote that “with growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others), it is time for an off-ramp. We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.”

She added that it is “sad and unfortunate” that “too often, choices are not made on the foundation of evidence and science” and said that, at UNC, the chancellor and provost didn’t have the “full freedom” to make a decision because the Board of Governors “told system universities they had to reopen and that individual university chancellors could not make those decisions independently.”

Her letter came after COVID-19 clusters were reported at the Sigma Nu fraternity house, the Ehringhaus Community dorm, Hinton James residence hall and Granville Towers apartments.

A “cluster” is defined by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as five or more cases that are deemed close proximity in location, which can be defined as a single residential hall or dwelling. According to new numbers released by UNC on Monday, during the week of Aug. 10 to Aug. 16, 130 students tested positive and 824 tested negative for COVID-19.

That’s a percent positive rate of 13%.

The new numbers also show that 87% of the campus’ isolation capacity is in use.

Before the university reopened, Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart recommended the university consider virtual classes for at least the first five weeks of the fall semester.

Students were officially allowed to move in on Aug. 3. The fall semester started at UNC on Aug. 10.

On Monday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services urged college students and university staff to take extra prevention measures, especially in communal living settings like dormitories. In a statement, NCDHHS officials said “because COVID-19 is highly contagious, communal living such as dorms makes it challenging to control virus outbreaks. Preventing infection in the first place is the best strategy. That starts with students and staff practicing the 3Ws of wearing a cloth mask that covers the mouth and nose, waiting six feet apart and washing hands often. We will continue to partner with our higher education community as they work to protect those on their campuses."

Also on Monday, the Orange County Health Department released a statement saying they were aware of the COVID-19 clusters at UNC and were working with the university.

A video on Instagram showed a party at North Carolina State where social distancing was non-existent.

Students from area universities attended the summer party.

"There is a lot of frustration me and a lot of other students are a bit confused," said Righteous Keitt, a resident adviser at UNC Chapel Hill.

Keitt said he had hoped that his classmates would have shown more restraint, but he's not surprised.

“You have to understand the freshman, who missed half of their senior year and then spend five months inside -- and then they got to school, and then you tell them they have to sit inside more,” Keitt said. “That’s just not something you can really expect,” Keitt said.