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By Lucas Thomae and Owen Sizemore
With the Fall 2020 semester finally out of the way, and many universities soon to begin classes for Spring 2021, students and staff alike are holding their breath that this semester is less chaotic than the last. Though many institutions were eager to bring a large number of students back on campus to start the academic year in August, this goal proved to be difficult, and in some cases unattainable. In the spirit of college academics, we created a COVID-19 report card for the many schools of North Carolina, highlighting their methods of instruction, housing, and overall ability to minimize coronavirus case numbers and outbreaks.
Appalachian State University
App State began their year on Aug. 17, 2020 with a mix of face-to-face, hybrid and online courses. Notably, they chose to keep students on campus for the full duration of the semester, despite an extremely large university population and mounting case numbers and clusters leading into early October.
The Good: The university boasted a relatively low positivity rate of roughly 3.1 percent throughout the Fall. This metric is comparable to other, smaller UNC system institutions despite App State being one of the largest schools in the system.
The Bad: Overall COVID-19 case numbers saw a dramatic rise from mid-August to the beginning of October. Oct. 3 saw the highest number of active cases of the semester with 225. Further, the university saw cumulative case numbers increase from 99 on Aug. 17 to 1,126 on Nov. 25 when residence halls closed.
The Ugly: App State identified an extremely high number of COVID-19 clusters throughout the semester. Of the 24 total clusters, 15 were identified in residence halls, six in Greek Life organizations, and two in sports teams.
Final Grade: C-
Although their effort to keep students on campus was ambitious, App State’s total number of cases and clusters was too high to warrant a better grade.
NC State University
NC State opened its doors to students for the Fall notably early, beginning classes on Aug. 10, 2020. However, high case numbers resulted in a mandatory campus move-out at the end of August, forcing the majority of students back home for the remainder of the semester.
The Good: NC State’s decision to shift to virtual learning following high COVID-19 spikes severely de-densified their campus, dramatically slowing the increase of new cases among the university community.
The Bad: Despite a largely virtual semester, the university still managed to rack up a high number of cumulative COVID-19 cases, with 752 total positive cases and a roughly 2.8 percent positivity rate. Their highest number of daily positive cases occurred on Aug. 22, with 88 total cases.
The Ugly: Cases skyrocketed following the Fall 2020 move-in, with total positive cases spiking from a meager 36 to a massive 428 between Aug. 19 and 26. This prompted university leaders to send all on-campus students back home unless granted an exemption.
Final Grade: D-
NC State’s choice to allow students on campus in August despite high state and national COVID-19 case numbers proved to be a recipe for disaster, saved from failure only by their quick transition to virtual learning.
UNC Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill was the first UNC System school to bring students back on campus starting Aug. 3. Unfortunately, they were also the first school to bring students back home, asking on-campus residents to cancel their housing contracts after clusters of COVID-19 began to pop up.
The Good: Chapel Hill’s quick turn around in shifting to all virtual learning and, ultimately, moving most of the on-campus population off campus saved their case numbers from getting even worse. On Aug. 17 there were 4,765 students living on campus, but by Sep. 18 that number dropped to 1,020. They set the precedent for other schools like NC State and ECU, who were also dealing with rising case numbers, to make similar decisions.
The Bad: Over the course of the Fall, UNC reported 12 clusters of COVID-19 linked to residence halls, Greek Life, and student apartments. Of those clusters, eight were in residence halls, three were associated with Greek Life, and one was connected to apartment housing.
The Ugly: Chapel Hill prepared only 73 beds in their quarantine dorms, a number so small that it seems ludicrous in retrospect. After the school saw their positivity rate rise to 13.6 percent by Aug. 17, those beds began to fill and capacity in the quarantine dorms very nearly reached zero.
Final Grade: D-
UNC was brave to be one of the first schools in the nation to bring students back to campus, but sending those students back home just three weeks later was certainly a major disappointment.
Charlotte employed a unique strategy to combat the risk of COVID-19, delaying the move-in of most undergraduate students until the end of September. The university also limited the implementation of in-person classes to first-year courses, engineering, visual arts, and other subjects with a higher need for in-person learning.
The Good: UNC Charlotte leadership took careful note of the COVID-19 situation both in the greater Charlotte area and on other college campuses, electing to delay the start of in-person instruction until later in the Fall. The number of students living on UNC Charlotte’s campus as a whole was also significantly reduced.
The Bad: Charlotte still recorded its fair share of COVID-19 cases throughout the semester, with a total of 486 positive cases from July 1 to Dec. 13, 2020 and a 2.4 percent positivity rate. This number, however, also includes students and community members who did not live on campus this Fall.
The Ugly: Despite a small on-campus population, UNC Charlotte routinely detected COVID-19 through their wastewater detection system and tested residence halls frequently as a result, albeit with relatively low positivity rates. Additionally, on-campus sports teams were a frequent target for case clusters, with a cluster being identified on the baseball team, football team, and basketball team, respectively.
Final Grade: B
UNC Charlotte was very cautious toward starting off the semester with in-person living and instruction. However, cases and clusters within the Charlotte community were still common.
Duke’s position as a private university allowed it to gain a unique edge against other schools when it came to testing and contact tracing. Their extremely high testing statistics, combined with strict on-campus living and learning policies, allowed for a large number of Freshman and Sophomore students to live safely in Durham.
The Good: Duke had by far the most comprehensive testing strategy of any school in North Carolina. They completed over 150,000 tests throughout the Fall, which included entry testing for incoming students, testing for symptomatic students and contact tracing, and routine survey testing for students with no symptoms. The school’s overall positivity rate was less than 0.1%.
The Bad: To achieve such a high volume of testing and low positivity rates, Duke only allowed Freshman and Sophomore students to live on campus, with Upperclassmen learning entirely online. Duke specified that there were 8,873 students, both undergraduate and graduate, living in the Durham area in the Fall.
The Ugly: Not much to say here - Duke’s ability to keep roughly half of their student population while maintaining an incredibly low COVID-19 test positivity rate was very impressive.
Final Grade: A-
Though leaving out upperclassmen, Duke was successful in maintaining a very safe in-person learning environment for Freshman and Sophomores for the full duration of their semester.
East Carolina University
ECU boasted one of the highest numbers of student cases of any institution in the country. After an explosion of positive cases, the school shifted to virtual learning and asked students living on campus to move out by the end of August.
The Good: Almost no part of ECU’s response was good, other than the fact that moving students off campus was undoubtedly the right decision.
The Bad: ECU has had over 1,700 total positive case numbers since they first started reporting prior to the Fall semester. The week of Aug. 23 to Aug. 29 saw 570 new cases, compared to 276 new cases the previous week, and 31 the week before that. The positive test rate from Aug. 23-29 was a staggering 26.8 percent.
The Ugly: ECU reported a whopping total of 26 clusters of COVID-19 over the course of the Fall semester, more than any other school in the state. Fifteen of those 26 clusters were associated with Greek Life organizations.
Final Grade: F
What else is there to say? ECU’s return was a colossal failure on all accounts.
Wilmington began its semester early, with on-campus housing opening on Aug. 15 and the first day of classes on Aug. 19. Throughout the Fall, the university struggled to find a balance between keeping students on campus and lowering the risk of new clusters and cases.
The Good: Wilmington was relatively quick to respond to rising case numbers on campus, announcing on September 8 that on-campus students must shift to single-occupancy living. They also put forth considerable effort to implement various types of surveillance testing throughout the semester.
The Bad: Despite a small initial on-campus population of roughly 3,600 students, cases climbed fast at Wilmington, with a peak of 38 new daily cases on Sept. 3. Smaller spikes were also observed in late September and mid-October.
The Ugly: By early September, UNCW was running the risk of reaching its maximum capacity of quarantine and isolation beds. On Sept. 8, 47 percent of the 150 beds were in use, dropping back down to roughly 8 percent use by Sept. 20.
Final Grade: C
Wilmington’s case numbers peaked early and created an uneasy living situation on campus, but their decision to switch to single-occupancy housing helped prevent further major outbreaks.
UNC Asheville: The Citizen Times reported that the university had recorded just 25 total positive cases from July 1 to Nov. 11, likely a result of the tiny on-campus population.
UNC Greensboro: Though allowing students to return to campus for in-person instruction, the school’s large commuter population likely played a role in keeping cases low, recording 313 total positive student cases since July 1, 2020.
NC A&T State University: It is reported that A&T’s cumulative case numbers sit at less than 600 since the start of the academic year. The school reported 6 clusters throughout the Fall.
Western Carolina University: WCU saw significant rises in COVID-19 case numbers in late August and late October, with weekly positivity rates of 13.2 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively.
Looking back at their strategies for the Fall semester, many universities are taking a more cautious approach in the Spring. For example, UNC Chapel Hill has delayed the start of in-person instruction by two weeks until February 8, and UNC Charlotte modified its Spring academic calendar to push back move-in until February 18. Single-occupancy housing and limited in-person instruction are two key staples of many schools’ Spring plans. With the national outlook on COVID-19 cases looking grimmer than ever, it will be a difficult feat for the UNC System schools to make the grade this semester. ●
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