It’s difficult to put into words the rage I felt upon learning that UNC will not inform students if one of our classmates tests positive for COVID-19 this fall.
Flouting federal guidelines about social distancing and who counts as a close contact, UNC-Chapel Hill announced at the end of last month that three feet between students is enough distance — despite the CDC clearly denoting the minimum safe distance as six feet. Students who are masked and sitting beside one another in classrooms do not count as close contacts, the university said, and will therefore not be contacted if one of their classmates tests positive for COVID-19.
The university backtracked on the three-feet rule after backlash from faculty, students, and community members, but has not updated its contact tracing policy.
I already felt antsy when UNC announced its initial reopening plan in May. Now, we go back to school in a little under three weeks, and the situation has not improved. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.
Because students have not been given clear and consistent information, it seems to many of us that university leaders are winging it, making things up as they go along. There’s only one isolation dorm, and only 164 beds set aside for students who are isolating or quarantining, which Indy Week reporter Sara Pequeño correctly noted “feels like an underestimate.”
Cases in North Carolina continue to rise at an alarming rate. If a small group of students socializing on Franklin Street can lead to a “cluster of about 16 cases,” I shudder to think how many cases will result from tens of thousands of students returning to Chapel Hill from across the country in less than three weeks. Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are going to be remote until at least the last week of October, a month before our semester ends, partially because administrators in that system are concerned about the return of UNC students.
A report prepared for the White House coronavirus task force last week lists North Carolina as one of 18 states that are in a coronavirus “red zone” and should roll back reopening guidelines to Phase 1: closing gyms and bars, stopping indoor dining, and limiting outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.
(I’ve never had a class meet exclusively outside, and none of the classes I’m currently enrolled in has fewer than 15 students.)
And while I try to think the best of the people around me, new survey results make it clear that I cannot trust a significant minority of my peers to help keep the campus community safe, despite university leaders requiring us to fill out an “acknowledgement of community standards and university guidelines.”
University officials frequently state that this is an ever-changing situation, and I’m sure this is their justification for not sharing any concrete plan with students and workers. But there has to be some way to deal with all the contingencies.
What happens if we come into contact with someone who has tested positive or test positive ourselves? The procedure is to self-quarantine for 14 days. But has the university mandated that professors have backup syllabi for when this happens?
And what if, God forbid, one (or more) of our peers dies while we are at school? Are we meant to just keep trucking on through the semester as if nothing has happened?
I am in perhaps the best position it is possible for an undergraduate student to be in right now. I will live in an off-campus apartment this fall, not in a dorm. I receive a full scholarship, so I do not have to worry about tuition or rent, and my work-study job is going to be fully remote. I have no completely in-person classes, and I am in perfect health.
But stopping a pandemic is about community compassion, not individualism, and so many members of our campus community are not in the same boat as I am. Graduate students and some professors are in a precarious position, not to mention my immunocompromised and/or low-income undergraduate peers.
I understand why UNC wants to keep us on campus. Students are essential for the operations of the university and for its revenue, and Chapel Hill is dependent on the presence and spending habits of undergraduates. In fact, it is the eighth-most economically vulnerable college town in the United States, according to a new study by SmartAsset. But this does not get UNC off the hook. Four of the seven more vulnerable college towns listed by SmartAsset have smarter, more student-friendly policies for returning students than UNC does.
(Coincidentally — or perhaps not — the three other most vulnerable schools on SmartAsset’s list with reopening plans as terrible or worse than ours are also in “red zone” states: Texas A&M University in College Station, the University of Georgia in Athens, and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.)
Topping SmartAsset’s list, Indiana University—Bloomington, is requiring all students to take a COVID test within 10 days of returning to campus and has made changes to its schedule for the entire academic year, not just for the fall semester. IU Bloomington is also providing cloth masks to all students, faculty and staff (not just to “anyone who needs one”).
No. 3, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will give each student two fabric masks and will be providing up to 20 testing stations throughout campus where students, faculty and staff can get a COVID-19 test for free. (UNC will only provide testing to students, post-doctoral fellows, and “eligible” partners and spouses for free at Campus Health.) The university is also making arrangements for additional mental health services and assistance for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
No. 6, the University of California, Davis, has strict guidelines on what to do if students, staff or faculty test positive for COVID-19. (Like North Carolina, California is a “red zone” state.) UNC Campus Health advises us to contact it if we test positive and gives no other instructions for what to do while quarantining or isolating beyond the CDC guidelines and a directive to “practice self-care” by FaceTiming a friend or watching a movie.
No. 7, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has also updated its calendar for the entire academic year and will provide each student with a “starter health kit” that includes two face masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer. The university is also planning to “test students for the virus as they return to campus and then conduct surveillance testing throughout the semester.”
UNC’s website doesn’t even have a streamlined FAQ page, which is where I found this information for all the other schools.
The form we are required to sign before starting classes includes this paragraph:
Despite the public health measures taken by the University and governmental authorities, there is no definitive way to prevent or eliminate the spread of COVID-19 on campus and in non-University clinical or other experiential learning environments that are located off-campus. This means that the inherent risks and uncertainties relating to COVID-19 could disrupt your on-campus experience, including closure or restrictions on access to campus facilities, modification to instruction and other campus services, and potential adverse impacts on your academic progress.”
With this, UNC is effectively acknowledging and shrugging aside the real possibility that students will get and spread a deadly disease about which we still know very little. And despite what it says, there is a definitive way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus: going completely remote.
Now that ICE has backed off from its xenophobic and cruel policy change that would have forbidden international students from taking a fully-online course load, there is no excuse to keep classes in-person. There are 19 days left before the first day of classes, and UNC does not have time before then to fix all of the aforementioned problems.
With every new update, it becomes increasingly clear that UNC is sacrificing us to save its bottom line. If the university wants to prove that it “places the safety and well-being of our campus community paramount to all other considerations,” as the administration has repeatedly claimed, then going remote is the only option.
Aditi Kharod is completing her final week as a summer intern at NC Policy Watch before commencing her senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill.