University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill freshman Mackenzie Holland spent just two weeks in Ehringhaus Residence Hall before packing up and heading home.
“I kind of expected it, but I’m just kind of disappointed in my classmates and the people that are out partying because now I can’t finish my college experience,” she said. “I know that we’ll be back one day, but it’s just sad right now.”
Students returned to the UNC campus earlier this month to prepare for the start of classes on Aug. 10. But the school abruptly switched to online learning one week into the fall semester after four clusters of COVID-19 cases cropped up in its student population of nearly 30,000. University officials linked 130 infections to dorms and a fraternity house and cited back-to-school social gatherings as the likely culprit. Students signed an agreement upholding new “community standards” such as wearing a mask and social distancing, but reports quickly surfaced of on- and off-campus events that defied school rules, as well as state guidelines.
University officials defended their planning for the fall, saying they provided a detailed roadmap for a return to campus life at the state’s flagship public university.
“I don’t apologize for trying … for giving this campus the opportunity to return to its mission on behalf of the interest of the people in North Carolina,” UNC Provost Robert Blouin said at a Faculty Executive Committee meeting. “I really do believe that if all the earlier assumptions would have played through that we would have had a very good shot of making this work.”
Those assumptions included that students would take the virus seriously and follow university protocols.
But a scathing editorial in The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper challenged Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Blouin, and the UNC Board of Governors to take responsibility, declaring they should have planned a virtual start from the outset and admit, “We all saw this coming.”
Before classes started, dozens of students and staff members organized a “die-in” protest on Aug. 5, lying on the ground outside the building that houses the university’s administrative offices. The protesters urged the school to shift to online classes and only open dorms for those with no other options.
Pressure came from outside, too. The Orange County Health Department sent a letter to Guskiewicz in late July raising concerns about students congregating in off-campus areas like bars and restaurants. Officials recommended at least five weeks of online instruction to begin the school year.
Just days after UNC made the switch, the University of Notre Dame did the same after testing revealed nearly 150 active cases of COVID-19 among its student body. Rather than send students home, the Catholic institution moved all classes online for two weeks, strictly limited activities, and closed some areas of campus. Last week, Michigan State University still had a few weeks before classes were scheduled to resume on Sept. 2, but officials preemptively scrapped plans for in-person instruction. MSU students will begin their year virtually instead.
Some schools are implementing disciplinary policies to enforce health guidelines: Syracuse University on Thursday suspended 23 students who attended a spontaneous gathering on the campus quad, Purdue University suspended 36 students last week who attended a party, and Penn State University temporarily shut down a fraternity that hosted a live party.
The situation is changing rapidly, said Mildred García, head of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It’s enough to keep university presidents up at night as they struggle to balance health risks with educating students.
“They’re doing all they can—and yet these are young people,” she said. “When we think back about when we were young, sometimes you think you’re invincible.”