Our planning for the Spring 2021 semester must be guided by a sober and realistic assessment of the pandemic conditions we face.
- Nationally, we are averaging, as of this writing, 174,000 new cases per day, nearly twice the daily average as recently as Nov. 3. (Dr. Anthony Fauci has repeatedly stated that the country needs fewer than 10,000 new cases per day in order to assert "some level of control" over COVID-19.)
- New daily cases are at least three times higher nationally today than they were when UNC classes began on Aug. 10, and the same is true in North Carolina.
- COVID-19 cases on college campuses continue to rise dramatically. Despite more campuses closing and pivoting to online classes, cases on college campuses jumped nationally to 321,000 in the first three weeks of November – just as students were preparing to leave campus for the holidays.
- Evidence suggests that campus cases have caused significant surges in nearby communities.
- Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, both nationally and in North Carolina.
- Despite the very promising recent news about forthcoming vaccines, no vaccine will be widely available before mid-2021.
- One of our national peers, the University of Michigan, recently announced that it would be sharply reducing in-person instruction and residential density for its upcoming Winter term (January to May). “What’s changed is the national context,” noted UM President Mark Schlissel. "The outbreak is blossoming again all over the country, including in our state."
UNC's testing plans for spring are vastly improved, but testing itself is not enough to ensure a safe campus.
- In various meetings with department leaders, administrators have said they want about 20 to 30 percent of classes to be taught in person.
- It was reported at a recent task force meeting that the University's goal is to raise the number of undergraduates living on campus from 1,000 (after the fall "off-ramp" pivot) to 3,000, with many of them sharing suites and bathrooms.
- Monitoring off-campus activities will remain a serious challenge.
As a result, we have every reason to expect that the University will – once again – be overwhelmed by infections when classes resume.
Are Chapel Hill's leaders ready to face that reality when it comes?
Last summer, the administration opened campus despite an urgent advisory from the Orange County Health Department, which they failed to publicize. The provost has already signaled that once students return to campus for spring, there’s no turning back, saying, “Once we get our students back on campus, I don’t believe we have an off-ramp."
Given current conditions and UNC’s track record, the plans for spring are doomed to repeat too many of the failures of the fall. The only ethical decision is to cancel face-to-face instruction (with the exception of classes that demand it, such as clinical experience) and to keep on-campus residency reserved for those who have special circumstances.
Roughly 1,000 undergraduates with special circumstances lived on campus this fall. We were able to accommodate them without spikes and clusters. Let’s not more than triple that number. Similarly, we recognize that there are staff who must continue to work on campus; they should receive ample, high-quality PPE and hazard pay.