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UNC Chapel Hill moves all classes online after 130 more students infected with COVID-19

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 17, 2020

By Tammy Grubb and Virginia Bridges (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun

DURHAM, N.C. – The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will move all classes online starting Wednesday after reporting 130 more students had tested positive for coronavirus last week, the university announced Monday.

The university’s updated numbers follow weekend alerts about four clusters of COVID-19 cases in dorms, apartments and a fraternity house. UNC has reported 324 positive cases since February, according to its online dashboard, including 279 students and 45 staff members.

Those numbers may not reflect all the cases related to campus. Health officials have said students who provide an out-of-town home address or don’t self-report a positive test at a non-UNC-affiliated testing site are not immediately counted in Orange County.

“As of this morning, we have tested 954 students and have 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, both on and off campus. So far, we have been fortunate that most students who have tested positive have demonstrated mild symptoms,” UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC Provost Bob Blouin said Monday in a news release.

The move could inform decision-making at universities in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, which are taking a variety of approaches to the fall term.

Washington State University last month abandoned plans to hold many in-person classes before the semester began, citing a recent surge in coronavirus infections. Eastern Washington University was among the first schools to pledge that its fall quarter would remain mostly online.

Spokane’s two private universities – Gonzaga and Whitworth – meanwhile plan to reopen their campuses and welcome thousands of students back into residence halls, hosting classes in person as well as online.

The University of Idaho, which has reopened its main campus in Moscow, said Friday it had received COVID-19 test results for 2,371 people since it began testing students, faculty and staff in late July. Thirty-four of those people had tested positive.

At UNC Chapel Hill, graduate, professional and health affairs students taking in-person classes will continue with those, administrators said Monday.

The administration expects more students will want to move off campus with the switch to remote learning, they said, but students without reliable internet service, international students, student-athletes and those with other needs, can remain.“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,” Guskiewicz and Blouin said. “We have made it in consultation with state and local health officials, Carolina’s infectious disease experts, and the UNC System.”

The news was released just ahead of an emergency meeting of UNC’s Faculty Executive Committee on Monday to talk about the growing number of student cases. Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman has urged the UNC System Board of Governors to give the campus chancellor “authority to make decisions” in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We knew there would be positive cases on our campus. But clusters, five or more people that are connected in one place, are a different story,” Chapman wrote in a letter to the board. “The presence of clusters should be triggering reconsideration of residential, in-person learning. However, moving to remote instruction cannot be done without your approval.”

The committee also held an emergency meeting Aug. 6 with Guskiewicz and Blouin after reports surfaced that Orange County’s health director had recommended July 29 that UNC delay in-person classes for five weeks.

Health Director Quintana Stewart also said in the letter that UNC should consider virtual classes for the entire fall semester and limit on-campus housing to at-risk students and those with true needs, including international students and low-income students.

On Monday, Barbara Rimer, dean of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, called for the university to move to online-only classes. Rimer cited the “growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others)” after only one week of the fall semester.

“We have tried to make this work, but it is not working,” Rimer said.

State data showed Monday that Orange County’s number of new daily cases has been climbing since Aug. 12 – nine days after students officially started moving back into campus housing. One-third of UNC’s roughly 29,000 students live off campus.

The county’s numbers had fallen steadily since July 6, the data showed, but since Thursday, the county has seen double-digit spikes in new, daily cases.

As of Monday, Orange County had 1,475 positive cases, the state reported. Roughly 25% of those cases were reported in people ages 18-24 – up from 22% on Aug. 12 – while another 36% were reported among those ages 25-49.

Students also have been returning to college and university campuses in Durham and Raleigh, but the number of daily, new cases in those counties continues to decline, data showed. The number of new, daily cases statewide also is declining.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said he has received a few complaints since Duke University students started moving in more than a week ago. He reached out to Duke administrators over the weekend to make sure a hotline for reporting student violations of COVID-19 rules, “is working as we need it to work,” he said Monday.

“I think what we need to make sure is that Duke is responding with urgency to the calls … in a timely fashion,” Schewel said.

Duke required mass testing as students returned to campus. Last week, the university announced that 3,116 initial tests had identified four positive cases among students, according to The News & Observer.

A group of student-athletes who came back to campus in July have been tested regularly, the school has said, as well as their coaches and staff. Those tests found 26 positive cases of COVID-19, and the students have now been cleared to return to their routines.

Like in Chapel Hill, the main concern related to Duke and North Carolina Central University students is large, off-campus parties, Schewel said.

“I have no concerns about the seriousness of their preparations,” Schewel said about the universities. “However, we need to make sure that their response to any complaints is very effective.”

Spokespeople for the Durham Police Department said Monday they were unaware of any complaints but also unable to provide a number of calls related to students because “our calls for service are not categorized by whether the individuals complained on are college students.”

Serious violations, including crowds of more than 25 people outdoors or crowds that are not practicing physical distance, can be reported to 911.

S-R reporter Chad Sokol contributed to this report.

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