UNC students outraged after quick shift to virtual learning

As University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill students scrambled on Tuesday to move out of their dorm rooms, make decisions about their academic futures and demand tuition refunds, they had one message for administrators.

We told you so.

“Everybody told the university not to reopen, and it was only a matter of time,” said Nikhil Rao, a student government senior adviser who has participated in online meetings with provost Bob Blouin every month since April along with other student leaders. “I would be shocked if I didn’t know this was going to happen.”

The university, which disregarded concerns from faculty members, staff workers, Black student leaders, student campus leaders and local county health officials to become one of the largest campuses in the country to reopen for students amid the coronavirus pandemic, announced Monday that it was shifting to fully remote learning after reporting 135 new COVID-19 cases and four clusters.


All of this after one week of classes.

Related: 8 days into semester, Notre Dame halts in-person classes as 146 students get coronavirus

Now faced with both a literal and figurative “clusterf---” — which is how the college newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, described the situation in an editorial headline — many students told NBC News that the university’s attempt to scramble together an “off-ramp” plan have left them feeling outraged and disrespected.

“Why did we wait until everybody’s lives were in jeopardy?” Rao said. “They put us all in danger.”

Image: Nikhil Rao (Courtesy Nikhil Rao)
Image: Nikhil Rao (Courtesy Nikhil Rao)

Since the campus closed in March, Blouin met online regularly with student leaders such as Rao and student government senior adviser Raleigh Cury to discuss plans to reopen the campus.

“There was a consensus among all student leaders who were involved in those meetings that remote learning was the best and only option,” Cury said. “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.”

Even with preventative measures, it would be unrealistic to expect thousands of young adults in their late teens and early 20s to properly socially distance, student leaders told Blouin since April, Cury said. The flagship campus at UNC has close to 30,000 students, including graduate students.

“It’s not the fault of young adults to do the things young adults want to do,” she said.

Image: Raleigh Cury (Courtesy Raleigh Cury)
Image: Raleigh Cury (Courtesy Raleigh Cury)

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Provost Office did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

In an emergency meeting Monday between the university administration and faculty’s council committee, Blouin said that had infection rates tapered off during the summer, the university would have had a “high shot of making this.”

“I don’t apologize for trying to give this campus the opportunity to return to its mission on behalf of the people of North Carolina,” Blouin said, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Blouin said in a statement that spiraling case counts had created 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,” they said.

The announcement to shift to virtual learning came less than an hour after the university updated its CV-19 dashboard, which tracks metrics like tests conducted, positive cases, and quarantine and isolation capacity.

For the week of Aug. 10 to Aug. 16, the dashboard reported 135 new COVID-19 cases —130 students and five employees. Most students have mild symptoms, according to the university.

The cumulative rate of positive COVID-19 test results is 10.6 percent, according to the dashboard — higher than the statewide rate of 7.5 percent. And out of the 954 tests conducted that same week, 135 positives, or 13.6 percent, were reported — a spike from 2.8 percent the previous week.

“We are working with the UNC System office to identify the most effective way to further achieve de-densification of our residential halls and our campus facilities,” Guskiewicz and Blouin said in the statement.

Before the university’s about-face, less than 60 percent of residence halls were occupied and less than 30 percent total classroom seats were taught in-person. The university’s student-athletes will attend online classes but continue their fall sports seasons.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s decision to go remote is a pattern many other universities are likely to follow, education and health experts say. Hundreds of colleges in recent weeks have already backtracked on reopening for in-person instruction. The University of Notre Dame on Tuesday suspended in-person classes after 146 students and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19, while Ithaca College announced it was extending remote learning and not welcoming students back for the fall semester.

To make matters worse for UNC-Chapel Hill students, “Monday’s announcement came one hour and 15 minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline for fall tuition cancellations,” said Lamar Richards, a student chairperson on the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity at UNC.

“It’s painstakingly clear that it’s never been about the students,” said Sadie Tice, a sophomore. “Every decision they have made has been about money, and announcing it a mere week after classes start and an hour before tuition is due is almost cruel.”

Richards said that the commission, which polled over 1,000 students about how the university should handle the transition to virtual classes, found that the majority wanted extensions on deadlines for tuition refunds and a school-wide pass-or-fail option for courses this fall.

A university spokesperson said that more information about tuition reimbursement will be made in consultation with the UNC system and will be released in the coming days.

Students and the wider campus community have not had a moment to rest, Rao said. “We’ve been here for a little more than a week, and now students have to wait until the weekend for their parents to send them home,” he said. “It’s absurd how chaotic this has been. There are so many questions about funding, about refunds, about what students should do.”

Tice hopes that other universities are paying attention — and considering UNC-Chapel Hill’s struggles before reopening campuses for the fall semester.

"UNC leaders have had the tools and the information they need to have made the right decision the entire time and they chose not to,” Tice said. “The only thing that has changed in this last week is we have proven the predictions of what would happen to be true."