This last week has been nothing short of embarrassing for the UNC administration. The University’s reopening plan has been plastered as an example for other institutions planning on returning students to campus this month, and has received intense scrutiny from journalists, public health leaders and government officials across the nation. Here’s a look at just a few of the things that went wrong — and some of the changes that need to be made if there’s any hope of students returning to campus next semester:
- Testing: One of UNC Chapel Hill’s first mistakes was not requiring preventative testing for students returning to campus. If we’ve seen anything from this semester, it’s that testing for students just showing symptoms isn’t enough. The University must require anyone returning to Chapel Hill and planning on attending classes to submit COVID-19 test results. However, this is just the first step; before the University can safely reopen, they must commit to testing students regularly (once or twice a week), and these tests must have a consistent 24-hour turnaround. This ensures that individuals who may be asymptomatic are identified as soon as possible, preventing singular cases from quickly spiraling into clusters.
- Case reporting: Although the University hid behind FERPA regulations this semester, many experts say that as long as there’s no release of personally identifiable information, releasing the number of cases within each cluster is not a FERPA violation. The University should release this information, as well as identify relative locations of the clusters to housing staff. This semester, UNC refused to inform housing staff that were employed by the University which floors of certain dormitories had cases. No employee of the University should feel unsafe going to work, and transparency is key into ensuring a situation like that doesn’t happen again.
- On-campus housing: Prior to move-in, the University announced that students had the ability to cancel housing contracts free of charge, in an effort to de-densify buildings on campus. The numbers reported that a significant number of students did cancel housing, but the University made no move to rearrange rooms based on those who did. For this reason, some floors of certain dormitories did reach a 60 percent capacity, while some floors had no significant change. On-campus housing for the spring should work on a lottery basis, with housing being reserved for individuals who require accommodations or financial assistance from the University, and students should be housed only in single rooms.
- Quarantine housing: In the first week of classes, we also saw the isolation and quarantine dorms fill up almost immediately, and individuals who were waiting on tests were sent to local hotels. This is just another situation in which the Chapel Hill community is endangered; if the University plans to bring students back on campus in January, the isolation and quarantine dorms must be expanded to either larger or additional buildings, and any cleaning or housing staff that are expected to work in these buildings must be further compensated for putting their lives in danger.
- Off-ramp plans: Expecting students to make moving plans and rearrange their lives within two weeks after UNC announced closing campus was unfair to students, family, and the local community. Expecting them to do it while classes haven’t been cancelled or grading accommodations being offered was just plain thoughtless. The University must outline a specific plan before making any plans for reopening in the spring, including what resources they will be providing to students and changes to the academic calendar that could be made. In addition, testing must be made available to any student returning to their homes in order to prevent individuals leaving Chapel Hill with COVID-19 and unknowingly taking it home to their families and communities.
Continuing higher education amidst a pandemic is certainly unprecedented, and as one of the nation’s leading public universities, coming up with an effective plan for reopening is going to take more work. However, if things are to be any different in the spring, the University must keep the needs and requests from students, their employees and staff, and the local community at the forefront of their decision-making. If not, we’ll be having our first and last day of classes within two weeks in January (again).