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Monday, August 17th, 3:43 p.m.
The email that changed the course of the semester for UNC students arrived in their inboxes.
The subject line:
[FORMAL NOTICE] Important changes for Fall 2020 Roadmap
It was the white flag that had been somewhat expected after students were alerted the previous Friday to the first two clusters of COVID-19 on campus, both in residence halls. A third cluster, associated with a fraternity, was reported Saturday. A fourth was reported Sunday.
UNC was one of the first colleges in the nation to welcome students back to campus, serving as a test case of sorts for other schools hoping to hold in-person learning this fall. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz even made an appearance on CBS’ 60 Minutes in June, showcasing the school’s plan to bring students back to campus, which he referred to as the “Roadmap to Fall 2020.”
A crucial part of UNC’s Roadmap was its designation of two residence halls which would serve as a quarantine dorm and an isolation dorm. The isolation dorm was meant to house students who tested positive for the virus. The quarantine dorm was for students who were identified as close contacts of an individual who tested positive.
By 3:00 p.m. on Monday, only 4 rooms were available out of the 170 that were prepared in the quarantine dorm, a number that, in hindsight, seems negligently low.
In just the first weekend since classes had started, the university’s plan had fallen apart in fantastic fashion. Students had begun to realize that they were studying on borrowed time.
Emma Terry-Edmunds is a freshman who was living in one of the first residence halls to report a cluster. She recalls receiving the Alert-Carolina message that notified her of the cases in her building.
“We had an emergency suite meeting and took our temperatures and blood oxygen levels, and we all got a ton of texts from friends and family and started talking about moving off campus.”
Monday afternoon, Chancellor Guskiewicz convened a special meeting of the Faculty Executive Committee. At its conclusion, the decision was official. All undergraduate instruction would be moved online and the university would be taking steps to “de-densify” its campus.
UNC had taken the “off-ramp”, as Guskiewicz had called it. They were the first of the UNC System schools to call it quits after a disastrous reopening.
In that infamous email sent out to students following the meeting, Chancellor Guskiewicz and Executive Vice Chancellor Robert Blouin stated,
“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.”
Others pointed out that students who could have been exposed to the virus on campus would be endangering their more vulnerable family members by moving back in.
UNC junior Annie Ferry tweeted that she was opposed to sending students home on August 15th, calling such a plan, “irresponsible and dangerous to our small communities across the state and country,” instead advocating for an on-campus lockdown.
Reflecting back on her statement, she said, “[UNC] should have expected those clusters before they happened… Sending us home now shifts the blame off of UNC for the rise in cases and back on our communities.”
In the Carolina Housing email, all students were strongly recommended to self-quarantine for 14 days upon returning home, based on guidelines by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
When asked whether UNC had considered the possibility of facilitating community spread by sending students home, Campus Health Executive Director Ken Pittman responded,
“Students are encouraged to self-quarantine for a period of time on campus if they have a family member living in their home environment who is medically compromised. Community spread should not occur if the student adheres to recommended masking and physical distancing practices once home.”
As for Annie, she sent in an application to stay on campus which was ultimately approved. She will do her schoolwork remotely from within the confines of her undergraduate apartment, without fear of unknowingly spreading the virus.
A Testing Debacle
Over the following days, new clusters of COVID-19 continued to pop up in residence halls and greek houses. By the 20th, UNC announced it was implementing group testing for all residents and employees of three of its residence halls: Granville, Hinton James, and Eringhaus. Based on the occupancy data from 8/17, an estimated 1,966 students living in those dorms were asked to get tested at Campus Health before leaving campus.
In order to offset the high volume of phone calls from students trying to schedule appointments, Campus Health suggested that students use a secure online portal to make their testing appointments. However, many students found navigating the portal to be frustrating and confusing.
One resident of Eringhaus, who preferred to remain nameless, recounted her experience.
“In an already stressful situation, with a full course load due to classes not being canceled, we had to navigate through the process Campus Health provided to get tested,” she said. “It was almost impossible to figure out how to schedule online, and a lot of my friends and I ended up having to test off campus.”
When asked what students should do if they are unable to get tested at Campus Health before moving off campus, Executive Director Ken Pittman simply touted his confidence in the ability of the department to meet testing needs.
“We have adequate testing capacity at both Campus Health and UNC Health Respiratory Diagnostic Center. Appointments are available every day and have been since this summer.”
Regardless of whether Campus Health had adequate testing capacity, the fact remains that students still decided to get their tests off campus. UNC asked that those who tested positive off campus report their results to the university. However, there was no way to ensure that they would comply.
One freshman student, who wished to remain nameless, happened to be one of those lost positive cases. After waking up one morning with a fever and slight cough, he called his parents, who brought him home before ever getting a test at Campus Health.
“I just assumed it was most likely [COVID-19], and my parents pretty much acted that same day and brought me home to self-quarantine.”
Upon returning home, he received a test at an off-campus provider which came back positive. He notified his suite mates of his results, but didn’t report it to Campus Health.
Luckily, the student’s symptoms never worsened and they had completely subsided after a few days, but his story presents a troubling — and probably unanswerable — question: Just how many positive cases were never reflected in the university’s reporting of the virus?
Now, nearly two weeks removed from UNC’s decision to send students back home, Chapel Hill feels like a ghost town. The last of the students to move out of dorms left on Sunday. Some were able to find apartments in Chapel Hill to wait out the semester. Many are back at home with their families.
Total occupancy of on-campus housing dropped from 60.5% on Aug. 17th to 13.1% on Aug. 28th.
Despite the exodus of students, case numbers continued to accumulate up until the last day of move-out. Since the fall semester began, UNC has reported twelve clusters and 848 coronavirus cases, among the highest totals of any college in the nation.
Looking forward, the administration has not ruled out a return to campus for the spring 2021 semester, although much of that decision rests on when a vaccine will be made available to the public. Yet even now, the athletics program seems to be charging ahead with its plans for a fall season.
Mack Brown said in a recent press conference that he’s “feeling more like [the football team] is going to play now than ever before.”
However, if the chaos that has resulted from UNC’s failed on-campus experiment serves as any guide, the only thing we know for certain is that nothing is certain. ●
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