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Local officials called on UNC to close before it went remote

Chapel Hill Town Council members Jessica Anderson, Mayor Pam Hemminger, and Michael Parker vote during a meeting at Town Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

UNC announced Monday that all undergraduate classes will be delivered remotely starting Wednesday

The same day, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger and the Town Council sent a letter to the UNC System and University officials requesting that the Board of Governors allow chancellors to decide whether to continue with reopening on their individual campuses.

"We are deeply disturbed by the heightened levels of stress, anxiety and division being felt throughout the community along with the concerns about personal safety expressed by students and residents alike," the letter said. "The vacuum left by the University’s decision to take minimal responsibility for students when they are off campus has meant that the need for monitoring and reporting has fallen largely to peers and neighbors, which is neither appropriate nor fair."

The letter was one of many requests from town and county officials over the past month requesting for UNC to reevaluate its reopening plan. 

In a July 29 letter, Orange County Health Department Director Quintana Stewart recommended to UNC officials that the University restrict on-campus housing to at-risk students and implement online-only instruction for at least the first five weeks of the semester. 

The Orange County Board of Commissioners Chair and the mayors of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough released a similar letter Aug. 5

Local residents also expressed their worry about UNC students coming back to campus in Carrboro and Chapel Hill Town Council meetings. 

Hemminger said the Monday letter was released because the Town was not aware the University was planning to announce going remote. 

"We knew there would be a faculty meeting, we heard that was happening, and we wanted to lend our support for the consideration because of all the clusters," she said. 

The letter cited clusters of positive COVID-19 cases in congregate housing situations and a large gathering at a UNC sorority house, as well as reports of other large student gatherings, as reason for concern. 

Now that the University has declared it will be going remote, local officials still have concerns. 

"We're pleased with the decision to go virtual," Hemminger said. "But we still have concerns about students we know that will stay in our community."

Orange County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Penny Rich said she has additional concerns for students who are being sent back home by the University. 

"What is unfortunate, is that students that were here in March, had their lives disrupted," she said. "They come back, and now a second time in five months, they've had their lives disrupted again."

Rich also said local officials are trying to figure out how many students who lived in dorms are going to try to stay in Chapel Hill by finding residence off-campus, and how many students currently living off-campus are going to remain. She said while campus might feel different starting Wednesday, the Town will most likely feel the same.

"You can feel the swell of the population," she said. "That's the concern because when you have more people testing positive, you can have more people that can spread the virus."

Chapel Hill announced Aug. 7 that student neighborhoods in Chapel Hill would see increased police patrols to encourage safe behaviors. 

Hemminger said there were not as many incidents in Chapel Hill reported last weekend as there were the weekend prior, and she's hopeful the message is spreading among students to wear masks and refrain from large gatherings. 

She said the Town is working with UNC to discuss educating off-campus students who will remain in Chapel Hill and making sure they comply with local and state orders. She said part of the discussion includes members of the University's fraternities and sororities, many of which are located off-campus, who choose to stay in Chapel Hill. 

"That's where the concern is," she said. "How do we work together to ensure one community so that we keep people safe?"


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