It’s been about a week since UNC-Chapel Hill announced undergraduate classes would go online after several COVID-19 clusters formed in residential dorms and fraternities.
Since then, colleges and universities across the country have either delayed the start of in-person classes or moved the fall semester entirely online after reporting similar cases.
“UNC was the first domino — the very first domino to fall,” said Bryan Alexander, a higher-ed thinker and futurist who teaches graduate seminars at Georgetown University. “But there will be more. Colleges and universities like to follow each other and really want to see what other campuses are doing. Some call it herd mentality. I think, a lot of times, they just want to see if something works.”
A day after UNC-Chapel Hill’s announcement, the University of Notre Dame announced undergraduate classes would go online for two weeks, after 147 students tested positive for the virus. That number has since risen to 448 cases among students, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard that is updated on a daily basis.
“When we saw UNC fall off the map, it was very much, ‘When is this going to happen to us?'” Michael Dugan, a student senator for Dillon Hall at Notre Dame, said.
And now several North Carolina schools have started to follow the trend.
On Aug. 20, North Carolina State University announced undergraduate classes would be held online after three coronavirus clusters were reported at several off-campus and Greek Village houses.
Three days later, East Carolina University moved the semester online.
Both universities began fall classes on Aug. 10 — the same day as UNC.
The same day ECU made the switch, UNC-Charlotte delayed the start of face-to-face classes until Oct. 1. The first three weeks of the semester, which starts on Sept. 7, will now be held online.
Tom Birkland, associate dean for research and engagement at N.C. State and a public policy professor, said he believes that schools that have reopened will make the difficult decision of switching online based on their own resources and case projections. He said he sees the events that unfolded last week at UNC-Chapel Hill as an opportunity for other universities to reevaluate their plans.
“It’s always difficult sometimes to say what event is catalytic, but in this case, I think using the catalyst is a pretty good metaphor for what happened (at UNC-Chapel Hill),” Birkland said. “They triggered a lot of other schools to look at their situations."
Are these closures inevitable?
Although UNC-Chapel Hill wasn’t the first school to reopen campus, it was the first to take drastic action to switch classes online and send students living on campus home.
That, coupled with UNC-Chapel Hill being one of the largest state schools in North Carolina with more than 30,000 students enrolled, sent shock waves across academia.
“It certainly made it clear that these kinds of outbreaks were going to be difficult to navigate with a number of quarantines and the amount of infrastructure you need as a campus to support students in quarantine,” said Randy Woodson, chancellor of N.C. State, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It certainly opened not only our eyes, but eyes all over the country.”
Richard Guarasci, higher education consultant and former president of Wagner College in New York, said college leaders began to realize that an online fall semester among colleges and universities this fall may be inevitable.
He also said the standard reopening plan for schools — which involves bringing students back to campus with social distancing measures across campus — is outdated. Many schools chose to start fall classes earlier than usual under the assumption that the coronavirus would die down in the summer months because of the heat.
But cases have seen a drastic resurgence over the last few months.
Many states — such as Florida, California and Texas — each logged more than 10,000 cases on a nearly daily basis in July.
As of now, North Carolina has reported 10,835 cases over the last seven days and 156,396 in total, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
“When we started planning for a return to campus, most people were optimistic that we would have flattened the curve and been in a far better place than we are today,” said Barbara K. Rimer, dean of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, in a blog post Aug. 17. “We have not flattened the curve, and the virus is widespread in communities, with case numbers bouncing around but nowhere close to where they should be now.”
‘Students are just prepared to pack up and leave’
Around 22 percent of colleges and universities across the U.S. are holding face-to-face classes this fall, according to research compiled by Alexander.
Although some schools have already switched to a virtual semester, others are sticking to their plans, even as cases have risen on campus.
Auburn University reported 207 positive COVID-19 cases among students and employees between Aug. 15 to Aug. 21, based on the school’s COVID-19 data.
Last week, Syracuse University suspended 23 students that gathered on the quad, according to a letter from the administration.
“A lot of students are just prepared to pack up and leave if need be,” said Thomas Shults, a broadcast and digital journalism senior at Syracuse who is living off campus this semester.
He thinks it’s only a matter of time before students are told to go back home, given the state of the pandemic and school closures that have started to take place.
“We all knew this was going to happen,” Shults said. “UNC merely proved it.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.