The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has had a turbulent week. Within only a few days of restarting fall classes in-person, school officials identified four outbreaks of the COVID-19 disease and coronavirus tests turned up more than 130 positive cases.
Officials made the call Monday to transition all undergraduate classes online for the rest of the term and promised not to penalize students who leave campus housing. It's the first major university to pivot from in-person to remote instruction after beginning fall classes, and higher education and health experts say the move doesn't bode well for other colleges.
They agree not all colleges will suffer UNC-Chapel Hill's fate, especially if they have robust testing and contact tracing. But schools should be aware of, and try to avoid, the weak points in the university's reopening plan that may have contributed to the abrupt transition online.
"UNC is the canary in the coal mine," said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University's medical school. "In places particularly where there is higher community transmission, this outcome is almost inevitable."
UNC-Chapel Hill did not test all students for the coronavirus before they arrived on campus, arguing in a public statement that this would "create a false sense of security." The university did not respond to Education Dive's email Tuesday by publication time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend entry testing for higher education institutions because it hasn't been systematically studied, according to its guidelines.
However, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested colleges would need to test students every two days while adhering to social distancing to prevent coronavirus flare-ups.
Some health experts have also pushed back against the CDC's advice. "That guidance, which I believe to be misguided, is being used as an excuse to not implement testing programs," Marcus said.
The University of Iowa also cited the CDC guidance when it told the campus that it wouldn't test students upon entry because it could give them "a false sense of security." Likewise, the University of Tampa said it wouldn't mandate coronavirus testing for students and employees but would require them to monitor for potential COVID-19 symptoms.
Whether UNC-Chapel Hill's move online influences other institutions to do the same could depend on how similar their responses are to the pandemic, experts said.
Kevin McClure, a higher education professor at UNC-Wilmington, notes that other institutions had more stringent testing requirements.
"If there's kind of a continuum of reopening plans with very strict testing and tracing and quarantine protocol on one end and almost nothing on the other end, I think Chapel Hill probably falls somewhere in the middle," McClure said. "Institutions that are a little bit more on the stricter end ... may look at the example at Chapel Hill and say, ‘Well, we're doing more than they did, and so maybe we're going to be okay.'"
Unrealistic expectations for students
Student behavior can make or break a reopening plan. The weekend before UNC-Chapel Hill's classes began, local police officers visited several houses, including one fraternity house, in response to loud music or large parties, according to a local media report. And earlier this month, a video surfaced of a sorority house packed with students for a social event.
"All of these efforts to keep classrooms and campus buildings clean and disinfected don't matter if 100 students are meeting off-campus and dancing with each other with no mask on," McClure said.
Some universities are publicly admonishing students for such behavior. After a video showed a crowded party in off-campus housing near the University of North Georgia, a university spokesperson told CNN that officials were "disappointed that many of our students chose to ignore Covid-19 public health guidance."
However, traditional-age college students are at a life stage where they are more likely to take risks and be susceptible to feeling lonely after following social distancing measures. "Blaming students and their behavior for what is the university's decision to reopen in a pandemic is decidedly unfair," Marcus said.
Colleges have never asked students to curtail their social lives this extensively, though that doesn't mean it's "an insurmountable barrier," said Jonathan Zimmerman, a history and education professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Instead of focusing public health messaging exclusively on what students shouldn't do, colleges should tell them how they can socialize safely, such as by meeting outdoors, Marcus said. "Students need to see a way that they can be on campus and see their friends," she added, noting that campuses still have time to craft this type of messaging.
Moving online after the term has already started will create headaches for students and their families, who may be locked into a lease for off-campus housing or have to cover unexpected transportation costs to return home.
"The pressure is to keep students on campus," said Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey. "It's going to be a tough decision to send students back because you only get one shot."