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UNC-Chapel Hill starts remote learning within week of starting classes due to COVID-19

Many students have criticized the university’s preventive measures, saying they failed to protect students, staff and the surrounding community.
/ Source: NBC News

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Monday that it was converting to all virtual classes after reporting 135 new COVID-19 cases and four clusters within a week of having started in-person classes for the fall semester — becoming the first college to send students home after having reopened.

"After consultation with state and local health officials, #UNC's infectious disease experts and the UNC system, Carolina is making two changes to de-densify campus," the school announced on Twitter on Monday afternoon. "On Wednesday, Aug. 19, all undergraduate instruction will shift to remote learning."

The shift was announced within an hour of the updated case counts' being added on the school's COVID-19 dashboard, which tracks metrics like tests conducted, positive cases and isolation and quarantine capacity.

The dashboard shows 135 new COVID-19 cases — 130 students and fives employees — for the week of Aug. 10 to Aug. 16.

According to the dashboard, the cumulative rate of positive COVID-19 test results at UNC-Chapel Hill is 10.6 percent — higher than the statewide rate of 7.5 percent. Among the 954 tests conducted the week of Aug. 10, 135 positives, or 13.6 percent, were reported. About 10 new cases were reported in previous weeks.

"As of this morning, we have tested 954 students and have 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, both on and off campus," university officials wrote in a statement. "So far, we have been fortunate that most students who have tested positive have demonstrated mild symptoms."

The most recent "cluster" — defined as five or more cases in a single residential hall or dwelling — was found in Hinton James Residence Hall, UNC said Sunday. People in the cluster were being isolated and monitored, and dormitory residents have been provided with additional information for next steps, the university said.

The university identified two clusters of the coronavirus Friday at student residences, Ehringhaus Community and Granville Towers. And Saturday, UNC announced another cluster at an off-campus fraternity house, Sigma Nu.

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said other campuses trying to reopen will face similar issues.

"Given the number of cases already at colleges, it's only a matter of time before they all shift to remote learning," Kelchen said.

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Before Monday's announcement, many students criticized the university's preventive measures, saying they failed to protect students, staff and the surrounding community.

"Many students, graduate workers, staff, some faculty members and even the local county health department warned that this was going to happen," said Lamar Richards, a student chairperson on the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity at UNC.

Richards wrote in an open letter to the university community Sunday that the administration's "carelessness and dereliction of duty" had led to the outbreaks.

James Sadler, a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill's school of education, echoed those sentiments.

"The dashboard and the university's plan was designed in a way that they knew people were going to get sick," Sadler said. "Maybe not as quickly or as much in volume, but it's worth asking: What parts of higher education are worth saving over people's lives?"

An emergency meeting of administrators and faculty members was planned for later Monday.

More than a week before classes started, more than 30 tenured faculty members wrote in an open letter to undergraduates expressing their fears about the university's decision to reopen "too quickly and completely."

"Under current conditions, it is not safe for you to come to campus," the faculty members wrote in the letter published in The Charlotte Observer. "Stay home this fall."

Right before classes started, Sadler told NBC News that the school's early cases were a prescient warning for an outbreak.

"Today we are saying: We told you so," he said.

The student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, also called out university leaders, writing an editorial with the headline "UNC has a cluster---- on its hands."

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