UNC-Chapel Hill Moves Classes Online After 177 Students Test Positive for COVID-19

August 18, 2020 Updated: August 18, 2020

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was forced to shift undergraduate instruction entirely online, as 177 students tested positive for COVID-19 during its first week of in-person classes.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and provost Robert Blouin announced the change Monday, noting that the university’s facilities have been operating at a reduced capacity over the past week, with residence halls at less than 60 percent capacity and less than 30 percent of total classroom seats for in-person learning. Students also had to agree to wear face masks, wash their hands, and practice physical distancing to prevent the spread of infection, before returning to campus.

Despite those precautions, the officials said between Aug. 10 and Aug. 16, the university has recorded an increase of positivity rate from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent.

“As of this morning, we have tested 954 students and have 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, both on and off campus,” the statement read. “So far, we have been fortunate that most students who have tested positive have demonstrated mild symptoms.”

In response to the rising number of cases, all undergraduate classes at the UNC-Chapel Hill will be shifted to remote learning, starting Wednesday. Graduate, professional, and health affairs schools will continue to teach courses as they are or as directed by individual schools.

The University is also continuing its efforts to “de-densify” on-campus housing. Students will be able to cancel their housing contracts without penalty, and residents with hardships—such as students without reliable internet access and international students—will have the option to remain.

“We expect the majority of our current undergraduate residential students to change their residential plans for the fall,” the officials wrote.

According to an editorial by student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, at least four so-called “COVID clusters” have been identified at three residence halls and a fraternity house. North Carolina’s health department defines a “cluster” as five or more cases deemed “close proximity in location.”

“University leadership should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless,” the editorial read. “Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise.”

The paper also blamed the UNC-Chapel Hill’s administrators for not following local health officials’ recommendations. In a July 29 letter (pdf), the Orange County Health Department advised the university to only allow those with “true housing needs” to live on campus, and to begin the first five weeks of the fall semester fully online with plans to reassess the situation at the five-week mark.

Guskiewicz responded to the letter on Aug. 5, saying that “we believe we are well prepared for the start of the fall semester” and “we were advised by the UNC System to stay the course with our current plan.”