Talk of whether or not students should return to school for the fall semester has been in the air since the start of the pandemic. While many schools decided on complete online or remote learning for the remainder of the year due to COVID-19 concerns, some adopted hybrid models involving both in-person and online learning. Despite the United States’ lack of response on the novel coronavirus, some schools nationwide even opened their dormitory doors to incoming students, not only offering in-person classes but on-campus housing.
Such actions don’t come without consequences. Ignoring student leaders who advised against opening campuses and encouraged remote learning, some universities—including the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill)—opened only to close a week later due to reports of COVID-19 clusters on campus. Following UNC-Chapel Hill’s announcement to suspend in-person classes, other schools also announced the suspension of in-person classes within a week of opening following COVID-19 concerns.
“Everybody told the university not to reopen, and it was only a matter of time,” Nikhil Rao, a student government senior adviser at UNC-Chapel Hill, said. “I would be shocked if I didn’t know this was going to happen.” The fall semester’s first week of school saw at least 130 students and five employees test positive for the coronavirus in addition to the campus positivity rate increasing from 3% to 14%, administrators shared in a statement Monday. The administration added that most students who tested positive have “have demonstrated mild symptoms.”
Since Friday at least four COVID-19 clusters have been reported at UNC, including in two dormitories, one university-affiliated apartment building, and a fraternity. While UNC has reported 324 confirmed cases since February, those numbers do not reflect students who have an out-of-town address or did not self-report a positive test.
Students are outraged at the school for opening and then demanding students move out within a week of moving into their dorms, NBC News reported. Students are expected to move unless they are international students, athletes, or those with limited access to internet service. “Why did we wait until everybody’s lives were in jeopardy?” Rao said. “They put us all in danger.” Rao was among a number of student leaders who has participated in online meetings with administrators since April about whether the school should open.
According to Raleigh Cury, another student government senior adviser, student leaders unanimously agreed that remote learning was “the best and only option.” The student leaders expressed that they knew and advised administrators that it would be difficult to expect students to properly social distance and follow other preventative measures. “The only exception was for students who needed to be there due to lack of internet access, or any other barrier that wasn’t conducive for academic success at home,” Cury said.
A survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that 22.5% of surveyed universities plan to hold classes fully in person or predominantly in person. Out of those surveyed, many that already opened campus and held in-person classes have already seen outbreaks. On Tuesday, Notre Dame University announced all classes would be suspended for at least two weeks following reports of at least 146 students testing positive since Aug. 3.
According to Notre Dame’s announcement, a contact tracing analysis found that most cases resulted from off-campus parties during which attendees were not wearing masks. “The virus is a formidable foe,” Notre Dame University President Father John Jenkins said. “For the past week, it has been winning. Let us as the Fighting Irish join together to contain it.” While he still advocates for in-person classes, Jenkins added that restrictions are in place to stop the spread of the virus and should they not succeed, the school “will have to send students home, as we did last spring.” The university had initially announced in May its plans to reopen for the fall semester, noting that while it may be difficult to operate amid a pandemic, they would meet the challenges to do so.
UNC-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame are not the only schools to experience COVID-19 cases within days of welcoming students back to campus. According to Politico, Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., reported 46 confirmed cases of the coronavirus through mandatory entry testing. This number is expected to increase, with many students still awaiting results. Additionally, two universities in Oklahoma saw a significant number of cases within Greek-life off-campus housing and athletes, CNN reported. At least 23 sorority house members tested positive for COVID-19 at Oklahoma State University, while nine football players at the University of Oklahoma tested positive following a one-week practice break. "We've done such a tremendous job this entire time. You know when (you) give players time, there is risk in that. This isn't the NBA, we don't have a bubble. We all have to continue to work to do a better job by all accounts. We're still confident in the plan that we have," the team coach, Lincoln Riley, said.
Thankfully, not all schools that planned to open this fall have done so, giving them the opportunity to implement remote-only learning before students make it back to campus.
Following the announcements made by both UNC-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, Michigan State University announced Tuesday that it will be going completely online for the rest of this semester before to welcoming students back on campus Sept. 2. "Given the current status of the virus in our country," Michigan State President Samuel Stanley said in the announcement, "particularly what we are seeing at other institutions as they re-populate their campus communities — it has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus."
While the decision to go completely remote is beneficial health-wise and prevents the spread of the novel coronavirus, it is important to note the difficulties and obstacles students may face, including lack of access to technology. We can only hope that programs that transition to remote learning provide materials to accommodate the students they have enrolled. While students are responsible for adhering to rules and guidelines to slow the spread, they should not have to suffer for the administration’s inability to rethink on-campus plans prior to opening.