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Return to campus may have complicated local impact amid coronavirus pandemic, leaders say

Students walk on a crowded Franklin Street on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. With a return to busy campus life, in-person classes resuming in the fall, and other factors conducive to further COVID-19 spread, there are lots of concerns being raised about August's reopening.

It has been a lot quieter in Chapel Hill since the start of UNC’s Spring Break on March 6.

Many students traveled, planning to return to classes on March 16. Following the extended break and move to remote courses to contain the spread of COVID-19, many students did not return. More students left after graduation and the end of the semester.

But on Aug. 10, UNC students will return to Chapel Hill for the first day of class, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced May 21.

The announcement, now housed on a UNC website named “Carolina Together,” details an early start and end to the fall semester, a phased return of faculty and staff, adjusted class schedules and sizes and public health guidelines to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The website will be updated throughout the summer as more details become available, the announcement said.

Some Orange County and Chapel Hill leaders are worried for students to return to campus and think the current University plan lacks many important details.

Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich said she’s thankful for Guskiewicz’s work so far, but thinks there needs to be more clarity regarding how the University will track on-campus cases and who has been in contact with infected people.

“Did you read that roadmap? It's scary,” Rich said. “Because the students -- we don't know if everybody is coming back, but if so, that's 30,000 more people in Chapel Hill that we have to be concerned about. And those numbers could tick up pretty fast.”

Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Jonathan Sauls, recently joined weekly coordination meetings regarding emergency operations, Rich said. His participation is important, she said, to help establish a clear line of communication prior to the return of students to campus. 

Rich said she hopes to see more details regarding social distancing and sanitation practices in dorms, mandating face masks on and off campus and the safety and efficiency of public transit.

Chapel Hill Transit resumed select weekday routes and schedules on Monday, with a maximum capacity of 10 customers. Rich said she anticipates transportation becoming a “huge problem” once students return and begin using the buses again.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pro Tem Michael Parker said transit is an important example of the coordinated planning that must happen this summer before students return.

“We really need to make sure we're taking into account what happens with students while they're on campus but also what happens with students when they're not on campus and are integrated into the broader Chapel Hill community,” Parker said. “Chapel Hill Transit is unlikely to have our peak-hour capacity that we would normally have and so it's important that the University and we work together to think about how we can change class and work schedules if necessary.”

Matt Gladdek is the executive director of Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization working to “maintain, enhance and promote downtown as the social, cultural and spiritual center of Chapel Hill through economic development,” according to its website.

Gladdek said the Partnership is working to propose and implement expanded sidewalks in downtown Chapel Hill to create more outdoor, socially distanced space for guests to dine in at restaurants. He said they are hoping to expand those with enough time to test for 30 days before students return.

The Partnership is also working to install hand-sanitizing stations outside and post flyers reminding people of the “three Ws”: wash your hands, wait six feet apart and wear a mask. Students are like any other customer, he said, but he hopes they will continue to take the coronavirus seriously even after returning from being cooped up at home.

“We're all in this together, in terms of we all have a responsibility to one another to make sure we're not putting other people at risk,” he said. “I mean we're really excited to have students back. It's been difficult for businesses without all the student support for our local businesses. So we're very excited to have them back and hope that they will patronize their favorite businesses to help us all get through this really difficult time.”

Going forward, Rich said she thinks the most important step is to have the vice chancellor for student affairs communicating with the county and then back to campus.

“We couldn't wait until we did with congregate living facilities in Orange County ⁠— we didn't know it was a hot spot until the governor told us, because everything was going through the health department at the state level and then it would bounce back to us,” she said. “So that's my biggest concern, that we're open and we're honest and as soon as we start seeing those cases go up, we have to all pull together and decide what to do.”

Parker said there is a good track record of communication and collaboration between Town Council and the University, but it’s crucial that continues for campus reopening to be safe.

“There's just a lot that has to be done between the University and Town in making sure that the Town is a full participant in the decision-making process. Because basically any or all decisions that UNC is making will affect the town in very really and important ways,” he said. “It's the time that we have to double down on it and make sure the University and Town are working as closely together as possible to make sure students are protected and safe and that our residents are protected and safe ⁠— we all have to take care of each other.”


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