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UNC-Chapel Hill Classes To Move Online After 130 Students Test Positive In First Week

Starting Wednesday, all undergraduate in-person instruction will be remote at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pictured in 2015.
Gerry Broome
Starting Wednesday, all undergraduate in-person instruction will be remote at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pictured in 2015.

Updated at 7:01 p.m. ET Monday

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is shifting undergraduate instruction entirely online after 130 students tested positive for the coronavirus during its first week of classes.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Robert Blouin announced the reversal Monday, one week after classes started and two weeks after residence halls opened at limited capacity. They noted that less than 30% of "total classroom seats" were being taught in person.

Even with guidelines and precautions in place, case counts soared in a matter of days.

According to a campus dashboard, 130 students and five employees tested positive last week.

Officials wrote that between Aug. 10 and Aug. 16, the positivity rate on campus rose from 2.8% to 13.6%.

As of Monday morning, they said 177 students are in isolation, and 349 are in quarantine, and most have demonstrated only "mild symptoms."

"As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, the current data presents an untenable situation," officials wrote.

Starting Wednesday, all undergraduate in-person instruction will be remote.

Officials acknowledged that this change, and the "reduction of campus activities," means the majority of current undergraduate students living on campus will change their plans for the fall.

"We are working with the UNC System office to identify the most effective way to further achieve de-densification of our residential halls and our campus facilities," Guskiewicz and Blouin wrote.

They added that residents who "have hardships" such as lacking Internet access as well as international students and student athletes can choose to remain on campus.

According to UNC System President Peter Hans, there are no current plans to modify operations at any of its other universities.

Calls to reconsider in-person learning intensified over the weekend as the school reported four clusters of coronavirus cases in three days.

On Saturday, Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman sent a letter to the UNC System board of governors advocating for more campus-based authority to respond to the pandemic.

"We knew there would be positive cases on our campus," she wrote. "But clusters, five or more people that are connected in one place, are a different story. The presence of clusters should be triggering reconsideration of residential, in-person learning."

Barbara Rimer, dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC, called for taking an "off-ramp" in a blog post Monday in which she wrote that "we have tried to make this work but it is not working."

Rimer said it seemed that students on campus were practicing social distancing and wearing masks, but "reports of off-campus behavior showed a different pattern."

She tweeted later Monday that she was pleased with the administration's decision to move undergraduate classes online and accept residence hall cancellation requests with no penalty, calling it "the right path forward."

The decision comes one day after the school announced it had identified its fourth cluster, which health officials define as five or more cases in a single residential hall or dwelling.

The latest cluster is at Hinton James Residence Hall, the university said in an alert. According to the university's website, the living space typically houses more than 900 students, many of whom are in their first year.

The individuals in the cluster are isolating and receiving medical monitoring, the university said, and all dormitory residents have been given "additional information about this cluster and next steps."

Contact tracing is underway, the university said.

Reports of clusters have streamed in since fall classes started on Aug. 10.

On Friday, the university announced it had identified two separate sets of clusters: one at a residence hall heavily populated by first-year students and one at a privately managed apartment complex that houses UNC students. The following day, it announced an additional cluster at an off-campus fraternity house.

UNC-Chapel Hill kicked off the school year with about 5,800 students in dorms, which accounted for more than half of the available beds, The Washington Post reported. Other students are living nearby off-campus.

Classes have been offered through a handful of models, including face-to-face, remote only and a mix of both.

The university said that it had been preparing for five months to identify, trace and isolate potential positive cases on and off-campus as part of its fall reopening plan.

The plan included guidelines for face coverings, physical distancing and on-campus gatherings, which are limited to 25 people both indoors and outdoors. (State public health orders limit gatherings to a maximum of 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors.)

The Daily Tar Heel reported on Thursday that police in Chapel Hill will ramp up patrols downtown and in student neighborhoods after receiving reports of people violating social distancing guidelines.

As of Friday, 1,049 North Carolinians were hospitalized with the virus.

Institutions of higher education across the country are starting their fall semesters as the global pandemic stretches on. Some have already grappled with a jump in infections, particularly in fraternity houses:Earlier this summer, both the University of Washington and the University of Mississippi dealt with outbreaks linked to Greek life.

The New York Times reported at the end of July that more than 6,600 cases had been linked to about 270 colleges since the start of the pandemic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.