The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled in-class instruction just one week into the new term on Monday after positive cases of COVID-19 shot up dramatically, becoming the latest U.S. school to reverse course on reopening.
The university’s chancellor said in a letter to students posted on the campus website that classes would be held online going forward, along with academic support services. August 11 was the first day of the new academic year.
‘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,’ it said in a statement after reporting 130 confirmed infections among students and five among employees over the past week.
The decision came after the COVID-19 positivity rate – the percentage of those tested who had infections – went from 2.8% to 13.6% at the campus clinic, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in the message.
‘So far, we have been fortunate that most students who have tested positive have demonstrated mild symptoms,’ Guskiewicz said.
Before the decision came down, the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, ran an editorial headlined, ‘UNC has a clusterf*** on its hands.’
The paper said that the parties that took place over the weekend were no surprise and that administrators should have begun the semester with online-only instruction at the university, which has 19,000 undergraduates.
‘We all saw this coming,’ the editorial said.
UNC said the clusters were discovered in dorms, a fraternity house and other student housing.
Outbreaks earlier this summer at fraternities in Washington state, California and Mississippi provided a glimpse of the challenges school officials face in keeping the virus from spreading on campuses where young people eat, live, study – and party – in close quarters.
The virus has been blamed for over 170,000 deaths and 5.4 million confirmed infections in the U.S.
Other universities, including the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, began the fall semester on Monday with all classes conducted online.
Nationwide, new cases of COVID-19 fell for a fourth week in a row but infections remain at high levels in many states and deaths continue to average 1,000 per day. More than 30 states have test positivity rates over 5% and Mississippi, Nevada, Florida and Idaho are over 16%.
New York, once the epicenter of the coronavirus in the country, has an infection rate below 1%, along with Connecticut, Maine and Vermont. New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that gyms could reopen from next week.
Nationwide, many elementary, secondary, high schools and colleges scheduled to begin the new term in August or September have imposed ‘remote learning,’ as teachers unions oppose in-class instruction.
‘It’s because it’s so difficult to create these systems where everybody is essentially behaving appropriately, meaning social distancing, wearing PPE and not gathering in groups,’ said David Long of Tuscany Strategy Consulting, referring to personal protective equipment. ‘It’s challenging when you’re trying to control behavior in young adults, particularly in areas that are outside the classroom and off campus.’
A school district in Arizona canceled its plans to reopen schools Monday after a number of teachers called in sick.
‘Every single one of us wants to go back to work,’ said Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association. ‘We want to be in a classroom, we want to be in front of our kids, we want things to go back to normal. But that school that parents want to send their children to does not exist yet,’ she said.
In Georgia, a third high school in Cherokee County has closed for in-person classes, the county’s school district said, citing an increase in the number of positive cases and nearly a third of students under quarantine. The district said in a statement on Sunday it was postponing the planned start to in-person classes from Monday to Aug. 31.
Cherokee County schools were featured in the national media this month after students posted images on social media showing pupils massed together in hallways, many of them not wearing masks.
Georgia’s new cases are down slightly from their peak but the state reported over 20,000 new infections last week and a 12% positivity rate, which suggests more undetected cases in the community.
A Nebraska school district said on Saturday it had canceled classes after three staff members tested positive and 24 more were in quarantine for exposure.
Officials at a school district in Oklahoma learned that one high school student attended the first day of classes on Thursday, even though the student had tested positive and had not completed the 10-day quarantine.
‘Upon speaking with the student, they said since they were asymptomatic then they believed their quarantine period was five days,’ Dawn Jones, public information officer for Moore Public Schools, said. The parents apologized for the misunderstanding.
At Oklahoma State in Stillwater, where a widely circulated video over the weekend showed maskless students packed into a nightclub, officials confirmed 23 coronavirus cases at an off-campus sorority house. The university placed the students living there in isolation and prohibited them from leaving.
‘As a student, I’m frustrated as hell,’ said Ryan Novozinsky, a junior from Allentown, New Jersey, and editor of the student newspaper. ‘These are people I have to interact with.’ And, he added, ‘there will be professors they interact with, starting today, that won’t be able to fight this off.’
OSU has a combination of in-person and online courses. Students, staff and faculty are required to wear masks indoors and outdoors where social distancing isn´t possible.
The University of Notre Dame reported 58 confirmed cases since students returned to the South Bend, Indiana, campus in early August. At least two off-campus parties over a week ago have been identified as sources, school officials said.
Paul J. Browne, vice president for public affairs at Notre Dame, said the university is prepared to suspend or otherwise discipline the hosts of such parties.
‘We believe we have a very strong chain of health protection, but these parties represent the weak link in that chain, and they can be responsible for a disproportionate spread,’ he said.
University officials in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama were likewise frustrated by the lack of social distancing and scenes of crowded bars and other nightspot areas on the first weekend many students returned to school.
In Tuscaloosa, the home of the football-mad University of Alabama, Mayor Walt Maddox appealed to students’ love of the game in urging them to take precautions.
‘If you don’t want to protect yourself and you don’t want to protect your family and you don’t want to protect your friends and thousands of jobs, maybe, just maybe, you would want to protect football season so we can have it this fall,’ Maddox said.
Some universities are still moving ahead with fall classes. At Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where a dozen students tested positive last month after an off-campus gathering, classes start August 26 and students are moving into dorms this weekend.
‘We have tweaked the move in process this year and are requiring students to sign up for a time slot so we can keep things spaced out and distanced,’ university spokeswoman Renee Charles said.
Balancing the health risks with educating students has been keeping university presidents up at night, said Mildred García, head of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. She said many are reconsider their plans as things change rapidly.
‘They are doing the best they can with their staff and trying to educate the students about masks and social distancing and the effects of this virus,’ she said.
‘They’re doing all they can – and yet these are young people. When we think back about when we were young, sometimes you think you’re invincible.’