Thirteen more students, unmasked, were linked in simultaneously through cameras from elsewhere in the United States and as far away as Singapore and China. Their faces hovered in an array of Zoom boxes projected onto video screens.
“This is a unique day,” Steven King told his class Monday at the outset of a fall term unlike any other in the long history of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We all know things are different.” So different that the university must reckon with whether the mere act of holding classes such as this, part remote and part in person, will hasten the spread of the novel coronavirus.
His own mother, King told them, has been fighting covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in a hospital for nearly two weeks and was just taken off a ventilator. Speaking through his mask at all times, he pledged high standards and strict enforcement of deadlines despite the public health crisis.
Learning goes on, King said. “Move past those issues, focus and get the job done.”
Alex Berenfeld, 20, a junior from Charlotte, said afterward that she was elated to be back in Chapel Hill. “This is doable,” she said. “I learned today.”
This is an early glimpse of what higher education looks like in Pandemic America at a prominent state university that insists on getting large numbers of students back to campus months after the coronavirus forced them to scatter. There are countless gallons of hand sanitizer and buckets of disinfecting wipes. There are one-way pedestrian lanes to prevent the hazard of clogged hallways. There are “ambassadors” at doorways to steer foot traffic and point out boxes of spare masks.
There is relief at the resumption of routine, resignation to the weirdness of new edicts, anxiety over all the unknowns. There is risk.
Fearful of exacerbating the pandemic, many prominent schools — including Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley — are bringing few or no students to campus and starting the school year entirely online.
But UNC-Chapel Hill launched with about 5,800 students in dorms — filling more than half its beds — and others living nearby off campus. More than half its classes include face-to-face teaching.
The university has about 20,000 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate students, and a very large share are now in or near Chapel Hill, the result of a decision to push for as much teaching and research in person as public health conditions would allow.
For weeks, faculty and local authorities have worried about ramping up operations when the virus that has killed at least 159,000 Americans continues to spread dangerously in this state and across the country. A university dashboard shows 149 students and 40 employees have tested positive for the virus since February, with 11 new cases last week.
The “belief that we can safely return to campus together with 30,000 students is quickly eroding,” Mimi V. Chapman, chair of the faculty, wrote July 21 to leaders of the UNC system governing board and the UNC-Chapel Hill trustees.
On July 29, the Orange County Health Department, which has jurisdiction over Chapel Hill, urged the university to provide housing only for students in significant need and to consider going all-online for at least the first five weeks of the term. Without a shift, county Health Director Quintana Stewart wrote, “we could quickly become a hot spot for new cases as thousands of students from all across the country/world merge onto the UNC Campus.”
Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the university chancellor, defends the fall launch as safe and consistent with its public mission. He says it was developed with guidance from experts in infectious disease and epidemiology. As the father of a Chapel Hill student, the chancellor said, he has a personal stake in campus health. “I would never ask the parent of another student to do something I wouldn’t do as a parent for my child,” Guskiewicz said in an interview.
As a neuroscientist, Guskiewicz has researched traumatic brain injuries in football players. He said he gathers and sifts evidence to make decisions. Right now, he said, the university has a solid public health campaign — signs everywhere encourage mask-wearing and physical distancing — and the capacity to detect and treat outbreaks.
“At the end of the day, I realized I’ve got to make a call based on the information I have,” he said. “And it’s not going to make everybody happy.”
If conditions worsen, Guskiewicz said, he will reconsider.
This summer, many university leaders have already reconsidered. Several private universities in the nation’s capital — Howard, Georgetown, George Washington and American — are shifting to online semesters.
Some major public universities are changing course, too. The University of Virginia had planned to start in-person undergraduate teaching on Aug. 25. Now it will delay that step until after Labor Day. The University of Maryland announced Monday that face-to-face teaching for undergrads would be pushed back two weeks, to Sept. 14, to enable an expansion of viral testing on campus. “We will not hesitate to pivot to more stringent measures” if needed, U-Md. President Darryll J. Pines wrote in a public statement.
But public universities in this state, as well as many in South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Florida and elsewhere, are pushing forward with aggressive plans to bring students to campus.
UNC-Chapel Hill faculty have the option to teach remotely, officials say, and students are allowed to take courses from home if they prefer. That presents families with a highly unusual choice as they weigh ambition and risk.
For Jayla Cobbs, 17, it was an easy call. The daughter of a nurse and a sheriff’s deputy in Whiteville, N.C., Cobbs disdains Americans who have blown off masks, hand-washing and physical distancing and allowed the virus to spread. She stewed about the public health debacle during months of isolation at home even as she anticipated heading to her dream school. Her parents dropped her off last week.
“I’ve been thinking about college since I was 8 years old, and I’ve had Carolina on my mind since middle school,” she said from her dorm lounge through a Zoom call. “The people in the country were taking away my life. And I decided to take it back.”
For Lilly Behbehani, 18, it was much harder. She had been excited about leaving her home in Somerset, Md., for an education adventure. Then she read that some faculty were advising students against coming to campus. And at the last minute, her class schedule turned out to be entirely remote. One professor sent her class an apologetic email backing out of plans to teach in person. Last week, Behbehani and her mother agreed that she should cancel her campus housing contract and study at home in the fall.
“I’m extremely worried about getting covid,” she said. “It’s such an uncertain disease. You never know what health issues will follow. And I’m extremely scared about spreading it to my parents.”
The two-track approach helped secure the university’s finances at a precarious moment for public higher education as the economic recession gouges state revenue. Twenty thousand undergrads are now enrolled, up 2 percent from the previous fall.
If the university hadn’t given families a choice between on-campus or remote education, the head count might have slid. “We’d have a problem,” said Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions.
Chapel Hill, founded in the 18th century, known for Tar Heel athletics and esteemed for academics and research, has much at stake with the plan it calls a “Roadmap for Fall 2020.” The university chose to begin the term eight days earlier than usual and finish in-person teaching by Thanksgiving in an effort to minimize student travel during holidays and limit viral spread. It requires students to wear masks indoors (except in their own dorm rooms with doors closed) and outdoors in places where adequate distance from others is not possible.
The university, unlike some schools, is not testing everyone on campus for the virus. Officials noted that universal testing is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they do plan to test everyone who shows coronavirus symptoms, as well as certain people discovered through contact tracing to have been exposed to the virus.
Student athletes get regular coronavirus testing. (A cluster of positive cases emerged among football players earlier in the summer.) In addition, the university plans to test about 2,000 students who live in dorms but don’t show symptoms. Two dorms have been set aside to isolate those who are confirmed carriers and quarantine those who had close contact with an infected person.
When the virus surged around the country this summer, the university sought to “de-densify” the campus somewhat by letting students out of their housing contracts. As of this week, residence halls were about 63 percent occupied. Students generally live in single or double rooms.
David J. Weber, a professor of medicine, pediatrics and epidemiology and associate chief medical officer of UNC hospitals, who advises the chancellor, said the plan is sound. He said he would not hesitate to recommend a reversal if the situation deteriorates to an unacceptable point. “We all need to stay flexible,” he said.
Some student leaders are dubious.
“Why are we still going full-steam ahead when we’re seeing other communities backpedal?” asked Reeves Moseley, the student body president, in an interview on Franklin Street off campus. The 21-year-old senior from Argyle, Tex., said he wished the university had opened dorms only to students with the most pressing needs.
Tamiya Troy, president of the Black Student Movement, predicted that outbreaks will occur as students give in to the urge to party and socialize. “We can go fully online,” said the 20-year-old senior from Fayetteville, N.C., in a telephone interview. “It’s not ideal for everyone, but it is the safest bet.”
Some employees here and elsewhere in the UNC system have filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the system of failing to take adequate safety measures. The system has said it is taking “every necessary precaution” to safeguard campuses. Housekeepers and custodians want UNC-Chapel Hill to do more to protect them from the virus. Professors, too, are on edge.
Elyse Crystall, a veteran on the English faculty, who declined to give her age, will teach three fall courses remotely. She said she is incensed that the university is bringing so many students back. “This is life and death,” she said. “This is not just some liberal cause that I’m interested in. This is serious. So I will take the risk of speaking out.”
But Steven King, 39, an associate professor of journalism and media, who once worked for The Washington Post, said he feels safe in the classroom. King, a father of three, cited his mother’s illness in asserting that he takes the virus quite seriously. “This is very real to me.”
Many here agree a major potential problem is the off-campus party culture. Franklin Street, normally hopping at night, has been relatively quiet because bars and restaurants are closing early under public health orders.
But a large group of young women, apparently from a sorority, was spotted one recent night milling around a downtown Chapel Hill house without wearing masks or keeping a protective distance. Video of the incident circulated on social media. Alarmed at this and similar reports, Guskiewicz last week wrote a stern letter to fraternities and sororities lamenting “reckless actions” that “call into question your collective ability to self-govern the behaviors of your members.”
The chancellor warned that students and organizations that fail to abide by the university’s public health standards could face serious punishment. “The only way we can resume on-campus teaching and learning is if everyone does their part,” he wrote. On Tuesday, he told The Post that three students have been kicked out of campus housing for failing to follow standards.
Much of campus life is on hold. The marching band has been sidelined. The football team is practicing, but it remains unclear whether the ACC season can move forward.
On a normal opening day, crowds of students line up on Cameron Avenue to take a sip from a fountain underneath a neoclassical rotunda known as the Old Well. It is said that those who do will receive good luck or even straight A’s.
This year, there was no line. The university shut off the water, another ritual falling to pandemic precautions.
Meredith Ammons came to the landmark anyway to pose for a picture and sip from a substitute bottle of water she brought for the occasion. The 21-year-old senior from Fayetteville, whose mother and sister graduated from UNC, confessed that she’s never gotten that mystical bump to a 4.0 grade-point average. But every year she comes back to the Old Well. “It’s such a big part of the experience,” she said. “This is my second home.”