- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had originally planned on a hybrid reopening, partially in person, with its dorms more than halfway full.
- Within a week of classes starting on August 10, coronavirus cases spiked, with six separate clusters reported and at least 135 positive tests. The school went completely remote on Wednesday and told everyone on campus who could move out to do so, then reported more clusters over the weekend.
- Some students and staff members said the situation, which The Daily Tar Heel dubbed a “clusterf—,” was completely avoidable if the administration would have listened to community concerns.
- Business Insider spoke with 12 students and staff members on campus about what went wrong.
- UNC said its senior leaders have “regularly met with” student leaders and organisations and incorporated “many of their recommendations” into its reopening plan.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Anna Pogarcic was in her Zoom class on Monday, trying to focus and not check her notifications. All of her classes were going to be remote now that the professor who taught her one in-person class decided it “wasn’t worth it” after the first session.
But Pogarcic, 21, is the editor in chief of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her “Slack was blowing up,” she said, referring to the digital-messaging app used by many newsrooms (including Business Insider).
She tried to ignore the Slack messages rolling in and quickly hopped into a different chat room to ask if editors were prepared for a meeting later.
Pogarcic said that after the other editors were uncharacteristically silent, and scrolled through more messages, she realised what had happened.
“I was like, ‘Oh no,'” she recalls.
Because just a week after UNC opened up for the fall semester in a hybrid model – partially remote, partially in-person – the school had abandoned this plan and gone completely remote.
At least 135 students have tested positive for the virus, and six clusters on campus were identified within seven days – meaning the school’s COVID-19 positivity rate rose from 2.8% to 13.6% in just one week. By the following Monday, the school’s Covid dashboard reported that at least 31.3% of students tested last week had been positive, bringing the total to 18.7%.
The Daily Tar Heel had been doggedly reporting on the many warning signs that plagued the school’s reopening, including the four coronavirus clusters that had popped up in the three days before the school’s decision to go remote. Two more, a freshman dorm and a fraternity house, were identified last week, followed by others over the weekend, Indy Week reported.
The paper’s coverage was essential to students such as Claire Perry, a sophomore who says she is at high-risk for severe infection and had previously written for the paper.
When the announcement came down, Perry was taking a nap in a hotel room, where she was in isolation while the campus health centre processed her test results after her potential exposure to the virus.
Perry said she had been carefully abiding by social-distancing guidelines; she still doesn’t know where or how she might have been exposed. All she knows is she got an email on Sunday night from the school telling her it was a possibility. She went in for a test on Monday and was sent to the hotel afterward.
She couldn’t quarantine in her dorm room because she shared a bathroom with fellow students. UNC had reopened just the week before with dorms set to a 64% residential capacity.
While UNC had a dedicated quarantine dorm, Perry said the school’s COVID-19 dashboard had shown it at almost full occupancy the day she got tested.
She said she wasn’t sure how many fellow UNC students were at the hotel with her, but she knew they were there. All of them had their food delivered from the university’s dining services in the same large brown bags, and she had spotted other bags in her hotel hallway.
The ‘need to remain in residence’
The eyes of professors, college students, and parents around America were on UNC after it announced its plan to reopen in May.
When classes began on August 10, the university was moving forward as if it were a relatively normal fall instead of the middle of a pandemic that is still not under control.
On August 11, The Washington Post reported that a “very large share” of UNC’s 20,000 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate students were in or near the college town, and more than half the dorm beds were full. On August 17, UNC asked everyone to cancel their housing contracts, except those who “need to remain in residence.”
The news set off a scramble, with students trying to get home safely, figuring out if they could break leases on apartments, and coping with the sudden change as academics continue on as unusual. The scramble includes UNC itself, which issued another statement to clarify that housing contracts should be cancelled by August 25 and classes were cancelled on August 24 and 25 for move-out purposes.
Business Insider spoke with 12 students and workers at the school about what life has been like at the Chapel Hill campus amid what The Daily Tar Heel’s editorial board has dubbed a “clusterf—.”
UNC was the first national example of an ambitious reopening morphing into a hasty retreat, and it hasn’t been the last. Already, nearby North Carolina State University has decided it will move from a hybrid model to a remote one on August 24 in the wake of outbreaks at sorority houses, with three clusters reported, about a dozen positive tests, and 500 students under quarantine, the local alternative newspaper Indy Week reported. Another hybrid reopening plan has been rolled back at Notre Dame. And the editorial board of that school’s student newspaper already wrote its own attention-grabbing headline: “Don’t make us write obituaries.”
Only 35% of American colleges still have some form of in-person learning plan in place for this school year, according to Davidson’s College Crisis Initiative, which has been tracking reopening plans at 3,000 schools along with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In an email, UNC said its senior leaders have “regularly met with” student leaders and student organisations and incorporated “many of their recommendations” into its reopening plan. UNC also directed Business Insider to town hall webinars for faculty. students, and staff, as well as meetings with various student and community groups.
‘It’s hard when no one’s listening’
On May 21, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz wrote a letter to the school community committing to reopening in the fall.
Faculty, staff, and students were to return to campus in phases, and the entire academic calendar would shift to run earlier than initially planned, from August 10 to November 24. The rest of the guidance was vague. For instance, it excluded specifics, like how many students would be allowed on campus, how they would be housed, and what kind of testing protocols the university would put in place.
Some students told Business Insider that any guidance from the university remained just as vague for the rest of the summer, especially as the school announced plans to skip widespread coronavirus testing and invite all students back to campus, even as other universities announced plans to reduce campus density.
Jermany Alston, a housekeeper in the Chapel Hill dorms, told Business Insider she began feeling sick after going into work on July 21. Alston said she thought at first that she may have had a cold but then began having symptoms more typical of COVID-19.
After going into work, Alston found out she had cleaned dorms where UNC football players had stayed after 37 athletes and staffers tested positive for coronavirus, she said. Alston said the school didn’t tell her about this outbreak and that she learned about it through the news.
Alston said that as of June, she “had to come back to work” because the campus had stopped paying her salary for days when it was deemed unsafe to be on campus.
“So I didn’t have a choice but to come back to here because that’s how I have to pay my bills and feed my kids,” she said.
Workers, educators, and students said they had been warning the school’s administration that an outbreak was likely if schools reopened to in-person classes. On July 17, days before Alston got sick, campus workers marched across UNC’s campus to deliver a set of demands to the administration asking for hazard pay, proper personal protective equipment, and clearer safety protocols.
Many of the demands went unmet – and Alston said she had to self-isolate for two weeks without pay. Alston, along with other UNC workers, filed a class-action lawsuit on August 10 against the UNC System, alleging it failed to provide proper PPE. Alston said UNC had provided her with only one mask a week, and she struggled to get face shields.
The UNC System did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Campus workers were not the only ones sounding the alarms to the campus administration well before classes reopened. Collyn Smith, a student-government representative, said they had, along with other student leaders, formed the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity to advocate for marginalised students. The group later began advocating for safe reopening and sent a letter to university leadership on July 17 detailing recommendations to make classes safer for marginalised students. The university did allow for laptop and WiFi assistance, but few other requests were met, Smith said.
According to Smith, only a handful of administrators attended a July 16 meeting with students regarding these recommendations.
“At that meeting, we had maybe one or two members of the administration that were present, and they weren’t anyone that were in these decision-making spaces,” she said. “It was not the chancellor. It was not the provost. “Just, I mean, we’ve tried and we’ve been trying, but it’s hard when no one’s listening.”
Tamiya Troy, the vice president of the senior class and president of the school’s Black Student Movement, told Business Insider she knew reopening was a “bad idea” after sitting through meetings with school officials and administrators: “It didn’t sound as if they had clear plans or alternatives,” she said.
Local government joined the efforts as August approached. On July 29, the Orange County Health Department released a letter to the public, recommending density restrictions and remote learning for the first five weeks of the semester.
Days later, 30 tenured faculty members wrote an open letter published in The Charlotte Observer urging students to stay home. It said the university leadership’s reopening plan was based on “a faulty assumption” that a second virus wave wouldn’t be as bad as the spring’s. In fact, The Daily Tar Heel reported in May that a UNC public-health professor told school leadership in an email that “we will SEE COVID this fall.”
On August 5, UNC released a statement saying it had considered the health department’s letter and believed it had already made significant progress toward its recommendations. The same day, the mayor of Chapel Hill and three other local officials sent a letter asking UNC to “take on a greater share of responsibility for various aspects of the pandemic response related to campus reopening.”
What was “extremely worrying,” Troy said, was that the university did not provide clear information about its “off-ramp plans” when student leaders asked what would happen in a worst-case scenario.
Peter Hans, the president of the UNC System, has been clear about where he places the blame, telling The Associated Press in the wake of North Carolina State going remote that every UNC school had drafted careful reopening plans and this “hard work is being undermined by a very small number of students behaving irresponsibly off campus.”
Many colleges have shutdown plans but aren’t publicizing them. Luis Toledo, a data and policy analyst at Davidson’s College Crisis Initiative, told The Wall Street Journal: “If you release it and acknowledge there is a possibility of students dying, it begs the question: Why are you bringing students back in the first place?”
‘A lot of students feel that this decision to open was motivated primarily by money’
In July, the UNC board of governors decided that even if campuses in the system had to move online, tuition wouldn’t be refunded or prorated. That’s the same board that urged a return to campus – and is now being sued by faculty members and workers over its reopening polices.
“A lot of students feel that this decision to open was motivated primarily by money and wanting to get our tuition money, get our housing money, our meal plan money, etc.,” said Pogarcic, the Daily Tar Heel editor-in-chief.
Indy Week reported that the August 17 decision to go remote was released by email about 3:45 p.m., less than two hours before a 5:00 p.m. deadline on fall tuition. Withdrawal refunds dropped to 80% after that point, the registrar confirmed to the outlet.
Some other schools in the UNC System outside Chapel Hill continue to operate with a hybrid model. And those schools don’t have the same resources or media attention as Chapel Hill.
Beyond the other UNC campuses, local public schools in Orange County will be remote for the first nine weeks of the semester.
“If someone can think of a better word than clusterf—, please tell me,” Pogarcic said.