Monday afternoon, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) made the decision to move all classes online until further notice and begin to "de-densify on-campus housing" starting on Wednesday, Aug. 19. Thus far, there have been at least four recorded COVID-19 clusters — a concentration of cases in a single location — on UNC’s campus since the first week of classes began on Aug. 10. Since students moved back onto campus during the week prior to classes starting, videos have been circulating with footage of packed parties, groups of students without masks and outside gatherings larger than 25 people.
With over 130 new cases in one week, students were not surprised by the switch to online classes. Lucy Hererro, a senior biomedical engineer in the joint program at UNC and NC State, said that she and her roommates “had a bet going on about where and when the clusters would happen and when school was closing...we didn’t think it would only last a week.” She has yet to receive information from NC State regarding case and cluster counts. Taylor Heeden, who is a senior journalism and communication double major who has covered COVID-19 in Orange County for The Daily Tar Heel, was also interviewed regarding her experience as a student and journalist. When she was asked about how the university handled the situation, she stated that “the university was going into this situation blind.” She also made sure to mention that the “greater Orange County population has expressed great concern with [the reopening]. They didn’t want the university to open.” Heeden also responded to how UNC could have done better: “They could’ve conveyed to the community more about their plans. I know that the mayors, town councils and county commissioners were really worried about this and now they’ve got 135 new cases in a week.”
The town of Chapel Hill even went as far as to draft up a letter regarding its concern for the well-being of the township. The letter uses harsh and direct phrasing to get its message across, such as “deeply disappointed” and “deeply disturbed,” and says that “clearly, the Carolina Together plan is not working.” When asked for a statement about how the Orange County Health Department felt about UNC and the COVID-19 related closing, Health Director Quintana Stewart stated that “UNC’s data-driven decision to transition to remote learning will help protect students, staff and faculty and residents of the surrounding towns.” These two correspondences indicate the deep distress that the greater Orange County population and Chapel Hill community felt regarding UNC’s reopening.
While moving class to a remote setting can be stressful for some students, many are feeling a weight lifted off their shoulders. Lucy Herrero said, “Honestly, I’m relieved...I’ve literally been barricaded in my house for the last 2 weeks.” She says that she does feel safer as a result of “all the freshmen that were partying [are now going] home and Chapel Hill [having] less people.” However, it is also concerning that these same students are now going home to their families after being possibly exposed. Many other students chose to change their living plans and move off campus prior to the fall semester starting, anticipating the potential of being kicked off campus. Neil Pierre-Louis, a sophomore at UNC, said, “I decided to cancel my housing contract and move off campus because I knew this exact scenario would play out. All of the students knew and the board did nothing.” However, not many students were as lucky or wise as Pierre-Louis and now have to evacuate campus. UNC has yet to release a move-out plan to the public and has also stated that it is unsure of how or if refunds will be issued to students being displaced. However, more information will surely come out shortly.
Could UNC have handled the COVID-19 situation better? Given the fact that they had to move back online after a week, most definitely. However, other universities and student populations can now look upon UNC’s failure to change their model and use it as motivation to follow guidelines.
By Elinor Shelp-Peck, Co-Editor in Chief