UNC-Chapel Hill Pivots to Remote Learning 1 Week After Classes Start as Coronavirus Cases Soar

After one week of classes, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests rose from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent

UNC Coronavirus
Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo: Ted Richardson/getty images

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has announced it will be shifting to remote learning after coronavirus cases among students soared just one week into the new school year.

The announcement came on Monday, just seven days after the university held its first week of in-person classes. Since then, 130 students have tested positive, according to CNN.

In the past week, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests rose from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent — and as of Monday morning, almost 1,000 students have been tested, with 177 placed in isolation and an additional 349 in quarantine, according to a university statement. So far, the majority of students who have tested positive have only “demonstrated mild symptoms.”

Starting Wednesday, all undergraduate classes will be conducted remotely, and UNC-Chapel Hill will allow students to leave residence halls “with no penalty," although international students or those who may not have reliable internet access at home will be permitted to stay on campus.

“We understand the concern and frustrations these changes will raise with many students and parents. As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, the current data presents an untenable situation,” UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, and provost, Robert A. Blouin, wrote in a statement. “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.”

Kristen Welker and Peter Alexander
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. NBC

Within the past week, four separate “clusters” of COVID-19 cases, defined by the school as five or more cases in close proximity, were identified at UNC-Chapel Hill. Two clusters were reported in residence halls, another at a student apartment complex and one was linked with a fraternity.

“When we started planning for a return to campus, most people were optimistic that we would have flattened the curve and been in a far better place than we are today,” wrote Barbara K. Rimer, the school's dean of public health, in a separate statement. “After only one week of campus operations, with growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others), it is time for an off-ramp. We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.”

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Ahead of the first day of classes, 30 tenured faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill made a public plea, urging students to opt out of in-person learning.

"We need to stay safe from COVID-19 by staying at home — and we need you to stay home in order to protect yourselves and your fellow students, your teachers, the many workers who serve you on campus, the residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and your own family members and loved ones," they wrote in a letter published in the Charlotte Observer.

"It is not safe for you to come to campus — to live in dormitories and apartments, to sit in classrooms, and to socialize with your peers in the way that college students usually do," they cautioned. "The country's oldest public university must not repeat the tragic errors of this summer by reopening too quickly and completely."

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