Now that UNC has shut down in-person learning because of COVID-19, will other universities follow suit?

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Photo via William Yeung/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

UNC at Chapel Hill announced it will shift back to remote learning on Aug. 17 because of a surge in COVID-19 cases after the first week of in-person learning. Now that the UNC coronavirus cases have forced 177 students who tested positive into isolation and another 349 into quarantine, how will other colleges who plan for in-person learning respond? 

In a statement, UNC officials said the COVID-19 positivity rate has risen from 2.8% to 13.6% at Campus Health. 

“As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation,” the statement said. “As we have always said, the health and safety of our campus community are paramount, and we will continue to modify and adapt our plan when necessary.” 

The university said it hopes the shift to online learning will help with the “de-densification of [its] residential halls and [its] campus facilities.” While the university will allow students to cancel their housing at UNC with no penalty, the statement also said the residence halls will remain open for student-athletes, international students, and anyone who doesn’t have reliable internet at home. 

Fellow universities planning to resume classes in-person this fall will probably find the situation at UNC discouraging. The New York Times reported that the university had been confident in the precautions it was taking: In-person learning was optional, classes were at less than 30% capacity, masks were required, and there was no lack of hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes

But it looks like some students who opted for in-person classes did it to return to socializing. The Times reported sightings of parties throughout the weekend that may have been responsible for clusters of COVID-19 cases in three residence halls and the Sigma Nu fraternity house. 

UNC is not the only university to see a spike in coronavirus infections after reopening. Politico reported that Bethel College in Kansas documented 46 confirmed cases, an Oklahoma State University sorority house reported 23 cases, and the University of Notre Dame confirmed 58 cases (on Aug. 18, Notre Dame shut down in-person learning as well). 

Students, staff, and officials at other universities are paying attention. On Aug. 17, 50 protesters at Georgia Tech in Atlanta protested in-person learning with a “die-in,” following a similar protest at the University of Georgia on Aug. 6. 

Despite protests and a general lack of confidence in young people to choose safety guidelines over parties, many major universities still plan to open their doors this fall. In a report published on Aug. 17, USA Today argued that schools will go forward with in-person learning simply because they don’t want to lose any more money (for what it’s worth, Harvard charged the same tuition even though all of its classes are virtual for the 2020-21 school year). 

UNC had opted to reopen the campus even though coronavirus cases were still climbing in North Carolina through mid-July. Although they have slightly dropped since, the state is still seeing an average of 1,277 cases per day, according to data from the New York Times

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Sources: UNC, New York Times, Politico, USA Today

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