Campus News

University switches to remote instruction for undergraduates

The shift comes after a surge of positive COVID-19 clusters over the past week. Contact tracing suggests that transmissions happened outside the classroom.

South Building on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information at 7 p.m. Monday

After a spate of COVID-19 infection clusters during the first week of classes, the University will shift all undergraduate instruction to remote learning Wednesday and continue efforts to greatly reduce residence hall occupancy.

“Since launching the Roadmap for Fall 2020, we have emphasized that if we were faced with the need to change plans — take an off-ramp — we would not hesitate to do so, but we have not taken this decision lightly. We have made it in consultation with state and local health officials, Carolina’s infectious disease experts and the UNC System,” wrote Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin in a Monday campus email announcing the changes.

UNC System President Peter Hans said: “There are no easy answers as the nation navigates through the pandemic. At this point we haven’t received any information that would lead to similar modifications at any of our other universities. Whether at Chapel Hill or another institution, students must continue to wear facial coverings and maintain social distancing, as their personal responsibility, particularly in off-campus settings, is critical to the success of this semester and to protect public health.”

Campus Health Services reported a significant rise in positive COVID-19 tests over the past week (Aug. 10-16). Currently 177 students are in isolation and 349 are in quarantine, both on and off campus.

To mitigate continued community spread within residence halls and contain the virus, the University is working with the UNC System office to identify the most effective way to decrease residential density on campus. Students will have the opportunity to cancel housing requests with no penalty.

The University’s research enterprise will remain unchanged. Courses in the graduate, professional and health affairs schools will continue to be taught as they are or as directed by the schools. Academic advising and academic support services will be available online.

“We understand that these trends aren’t just affecting our  campus: They have escalated the concerns of our neighbors, co-workers and friends in and around the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities. The health and well-being of the good people of our greater Carolina community are just as important to us as that of our students, faculty and staff,” the campus message continued.  “As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation. 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.”

Emergency faculty meeting

Monday afternoon’s campus email preceded a special meeting of the Faculty Executive Committee held on Zoom.

“We knew that we would have individual cases on our campus, but from early on in the Roadmap planning, our infectious disease colleagues told us that clusters would be a warning that an off-ramp should be considered,” Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman said. “We are at such a consideration point one week into classes. It is a serious and sobering moment. This reality does not mean that our campus has not used every tool at its disposal to do the best that we could.” But, she added, “it is possible that that is not enough.”

During the 90-minute meeting, FEC members commented and posed questions for the chancellor, provost and others, including Jonathan Sauls, associate vice chancellor for student affairs; Myron Cohen, associate vice chancellor for global health and medical affairs; David Weber, professor of microbiology and medicine; Joseph Eron, chief of the UNC Division of Infectious Diseases; and Campus Health Executive Director Ken Pittman.

Pittman said that among the students who have tested positive and completed contact tracing, none has identified any individuals who they came in contact with while unmasked in a classroom setting.

“That’s a lot of contact tracing, and we have not identified any issues within academics,” said Pittman. “Our students have done a very good job in meeting the community standards as they interacted in the classroom setting.”

“We have no examples of a faculty-to-student/student-to-faculty transmission,” added Blouin. “We also don’t have an example of a laboratory worker-to-faculty/faculty-to-laboratory worker transmission, via the research enterprise.” Nor have there been any cases of transmission from a UNC clinician or health care worker to patient.

“Where we have not done as well is off campus,” said Blouin. “We do have the expectations that students will maintain their compliance with our community standards, whether they’re on campus or off campus, particularly in Chapel Hill. But that is something that has been very difficult for us to enforce.”

Cohen said he always anticipated positive cases on campus, just as there have been positive cases in communities around the state and across the country.

“I think what was unanticipated is the velocity and magnitude of the spread of COVID since the return,” he said.

While the clusters of cases have forced the shift to remote learning, “this is not going to be a shutdown of campus operations,” Guskiewicz said.

Social Medicine Research Professor Sue Estroff emphasized how much work she and other faculty have put into preparing for a transition to remote learning. She said she sees this adaptation as an alternative that best meets the needs of keeping students and faculty safe.

“One of the things that has concerned many of us is the idea that if you’re not in class, it’s a failure. I know everybody has spent time working on adapting courses and getting new materials and redoing lectures and rerecording lectures and spending time one-on-one with students, perhaps more than we even did before,” she said. “This is not a situation any of us wanted to have, but it would be a mistake not to recognize that everybody is working even harder at pedagogy now than they were before.”

Guskiewicz, who called this period among the most trying of his professional career, thanked the faculty for their hard work and acknowledged the ongoing challenges that the pandemic presents.

“We’re going to learn from it, adapt from it, because this thing is not going away,” he said. “We are going to be sitting here likely in December and January and February talking about some of these issues and how we move forward as a campus and trying to help other universities move forward.”