NC Universities Go Remote After COVID-19 Clusters

NC Universities Go Remote After COVID-19 Clusters

It took two weeks. Most colleges in North Carolina had planned to physically reopen their campuses for Fall 2020. But thanks to surging COVID-19 cases, some NC universities have pulled back to remote instruction. How did we get here?

Universities Planned to Reopen Despite COVID-19

You might remember that, by late May, the UNC system and other universities had planned to reopen. That had meant a mixture of in-person and remote classes, while students physically lived on campuses with social distancing and mask measures in place.

Classes for the UNC system began Aug. 10. By Aug. 19, UNC – Chapel Hill chose remote classes only. The next day, NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson announced that his school would also go remote for the semester (starting Aug. 24). And to top it off, East Carolina University began remote classes only on Aug. 26. The return to remote-only courses came quickly, starting with UNC – Chapel Hill. Why?

These NC universities saw “clusters” of COVID-19 cases spread among their students.

To back up: a cluster means five or more cases in close proximity. UNC – Chapel Hill began reporting clusters soon after its first day of classes. According to its COVID-19 dashboard, UNC had clusters in seven different residence halls by Aug. 24 (Granville Towers had the most confirmed cases, at 152). From the start of fall classes through Aug. 23, the school reported 635 positive COVID-19 cases.

Need an illustration of how quickly positive cases surged? Between Aug. 3 and Aug. 9, only 2.8% of COVID-19 tests were positive at UNC – Chapel Hill. Two weeks later (by Aug. 23), that figure had reached 32.2%.

NC universities’ leaders have pointed to off-campus parties that spread COVID-19 despite schools’ safety measures. Whatever their origin, the increased cases have left schools in a tight spot.

NC State Universities COVID-19 image
NC State campus. Image courtesy of WECT.

NC Universities Face Only Uncertainty Now

UNC – Chapel Hill has received plenty of national coverage and criticism for the speed of the virus’s spread there. Their students have felt the brunt of these sudden changes: undergrad classes on Aug. 24 and 25 were paused to allow students to move out and “catch their breath.” UNC had asked that on-campus students cancel their housing contracts (without penalty) by Aug. 25.

NC State just announced that its dorms will close in early September, given COVID-19’s spread.

Never mind the question of collegiate sports. NC State has already received a delayed football start. Though, we can say that UNC has continued some sports despite its clusters. After all, the ACC still plans sports to start from Sept. 7-12 (though the Big 10 has cancelled its schedules already). Duke, for its part, will begin fall sports without fans.

But student journalists at UNC – Chapel Hill have made the most of their upended semester.

The campus’s own student newspaper (the Daily Tar Heel) has earned praise for covering the COVID-19 outbreaks, before and during the reopening. Its editorials have criticised the administration for the semester’s roll-out, while its news writers have examined where the process failed.

For instance: one article pointed out that UNC officials had received warnings not to reopen from their own medical personnel, back on May 27. Another article noted that the Orange County Health Department had recommended that UNC officials debut only remote instruction for the first five weeks. That letter had arrived July 29, and UNC officials seemingly ignored it. The Daily Tar Heel has garnered national praise for covering the university’s missteps.

What Can We Expect Next?

Remote instruction in many places, likely for many weeks. NC State will remain online through the fall. UNC – Chapel Hill hasn’t said definitively if in-person classes will remain, though its students can choose pass/fail grading as part of its ongoing call for flexibility.

Stay tuned about the state’s college sports – college athletics have remained in flux nationwide, and ACC plans might change on a dime. Ditto for other NC universities: though places like NCCU and Appalachian State haven’t gone fully online, their leaders may need to respond if they also report quick increases of clusters.

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