UNC-Chapel Hill cancels in-person classes one week into semester due to COVID-19

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University of North Carolina students wait outside of Woolen Gym on the Chapel Hill, N.C., campus as they wait to enter for a fitness class Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. The University announced minutes before that all classes will be moved online starting Wednesday, Aug. 19 due to COVID clusters on campus. (Julia Wall/The News & Observer via AP)

North Carolina’s flagship university canceled in-person classes for undergraduates just a week into the fall semester Monday as the school and other campuses around the U.S. scrambled to deal with coronavirus clusters linked in some cases to student housing, off-campus parties and packed bars.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said it will switch to remote learning on Wednesday and make arrangements for students who want to leave campus housing.

“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.

UNC said the clusters were discovered in dorms, a fraternity house and other student housing.

Before the decision came down, the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, ran an editorial headlined, “UNC has a clusterf—k on its hands,” though without the dashes.

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.

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.

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 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 moving ahead with fall classes as planned even as cases pop up. At Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where a dozen students tested positive last month after an off-campus gathering, classes start Aug. 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 having to 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.”

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