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UNC abruptly halts in-person classes after coronavirus outbreak on campus

Students walk past Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jonathan Drake | Reuters

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Monday it is canceling in-person undergraduate classes and shifting them entirely to remote learning after a coronavirus outbreak quickly spread across campus just two weeks after students returned for the fall semester. 

University administrators made the announcement just a week after classes began at the campus, which has roughly 30,000 students. The entire UNC system has more than 200,000 students, but the university officials said the decision applies just to its Chapel Hill campus, which was one of the largest universities in the country to decide to hold in-person classes for the fall semester amid the pandemic.

The school said in a statement Monday that the Covid-19 “positivity” rate jumped to 13.6% as of Sunday from 2.8% a week before. Some 135 students and staff tested positive over the last week, according to the university’s online coronavirus dashboard.

“As of this morning, we have tested 954 students and have 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, both on and off campus.” The university has just four remaining quarantine rooms, according to its online coronavirus dashboard, which was updated earlier Monday.

Due to the rise in cases, the university will shift all undergraduate in-person courses at its Chapel Hill campus to remote learning by Wednesday, the university said. Courses in the graduate, professional and health affairs schools will “continue to be taught as they are, or as directed by the schools.”

The university didn’t say if remote learning would be in place all semester, but offered to cancel residence hall reservations without penalty.

“We understand the concern and frustrations these changes will raise with many students and parents,” UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, and provost, Robert Blouin, said in a statement. “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.”

University and school administrators are watching the situation at UNC and other universities that have already brought students back to campus for any indication of how and whether schools can safely resume in-person learning. 

Since last week, the university has disclosed at least four clusters of infections that were traced back to residence halls and a fraternity, according to student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel

Earlier Monday, Barbara Rimer, dean of public health at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in a statement that “it is time for an off-ramp.”

“After only one week of campus operations, with growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others), it is time for an off-ramp,” she said. “We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.”

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