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UNC System interim president expects campuses to reopen in the fall

Students sit on the quad at Polk Place on Monday, February 3, 2020. Added graphics refer to the questions surrounding a return to UNC's campus in mid-August of 2020 for the Fall 2020 semester at what will hopefully be the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Update, 2:18 p.m.: The University is currently preparing to reopen in phases in the hope of having students return to campus in August, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in an email Tuesday. Guskiewicz said UNC is working to develop a plan that would allow university research operations to reopen in June and July. Details of the full plan are expected to be announced later in May.

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper announced in a statement released Wednesday that he expects students and faculty to return to all 17 UNC System campuses this fall, though he does not anticipate operations returning to “normal" as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For many in the UNC System, digital learning technologies simply cannot be a long-term substitute for the facilities and community that our campuses provide,” Roper said in the statement. “The majority of our faculty and students need access to our libraries, labs, classrooms and medical and agriculture facilities to fully engage with their research, teaching, learning and service work.”

Roper said in the statement that recent North Carolina data shows "indications of improvement" regarding the threat of COVID-19. Roper said he is hopeful this trend will continue, but noted that whatever steps the UNC System takes will be based on infection rates and North Carolina’s testing and treatment capacity. 

Roper said chancellors at each university will have the flexibility to implement precautions needed to protect individual campus communities in the fall. He said some of these measures might include changing the academic calendar or reducing student density in campus housing and classrooms. 

In an emailed statement, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he's optimistic UNC will begin classes on campus in mid-August, but he also noted the difficulties for students in planning ahead for the fall semester, particularly for incoming first-years. 

“We recognize how stressful this has been and continues to be for our current students contemplating their fall plans on campus,” Guskiewicz wrote in the statement. “And, we also know how stressful this has been for our incoming class of 2024 who have had their high school senior year derailed, Carolina orientation moved to an online experience and now face an uncertain start to their four years at Carolina."

At Tuesday’s virtual Advisory Committee meeting, Guskiewicz said the University is planning for various fall scenarios. As UNC makes decisions about what the fall semester will look like, he said the University is committed to a set of operating principles with the health and safety of the campus community being the top priority. He said other considerations for the fall include student and faculty experiences related to mental health, belonging and adaptation to new teaching, learning and research environments.

In planning for the fall, Guskiewicz said he has a team considering various options for delivering instruction, given there will likely still be some social distancing in place. 

One option involves larger classes being taught remotely with one day a week of in-person smaller group meetings. Guskiewicz said this would give students the experience of interacting with faculty and classmates while still completing some remote coursework.

Another option would allow some courses to be taught in a classroom with students, while also being taught concurrently remotely. Guskiewicz said this dual-delivery model would allow for synchronous or asynchronous delivery for international students facing large time differences.

Guskiewicz said the University is also considering population density factors, as spaces on campus like Lenoir and Chase dining halls are already compressed. He said UNC is looking into additional parts of campus where dining could take place.

Additionally, Guskiewicz said changes in campus life could include potentially requiring people to wear masks, staying six feet apart and having a limited number of people in event gatherings. 

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin said in a Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday that surveillance may be also considered in the return to campus as a way to track people who test positive for the virus.

In his statement, Guskiewicz said infectious disease experts are working with his leadership team on a daily basis to analyze different scenarios. In the Monday advisory meeting, the chancellor said these experts expect to have a better picture of what August and September will look like by the end of May and early June, which will inform UNC’s upcoming decisions.

“While it is still too early to know the exact plan for the fall, we are being thoughtful and extremely deliberate in our process,” Guskiewicz wrote in the statement. 

Greta Travaglia contributed reporting.

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