For months, UNC has been on the cusp of a major decision, the same one it stared down in the fall: a return to in-person classes.
Once again, it has backed away.
Now, the evening before in-person classes resume, the burden of decision-making has been pushed to professors. While in-person classes will still begin Monday, faculty are given the option to continue with remote instruction until Feb. 17.
This decision comes one day after students flooded Franklin Street to celebrate UNC’s win over Duke, violating COVID-19 restrictions and putting the entire community at risk. But instead of making a firm decision, the University has decided to delegate its responsibility to professors, to students — anybody but itself.
The case against in-person learning
The University has yet to specify how it will effectively move to an all-online format if needed. The pandemic is still a real threat, and the lack of a plan isn’t comforting to students who have experienced the whiplash of a frantic shift to remote learning more than once already. To find ourselves once again in a state of uncertainty is frustrating — we have seen that this unplanned path leads nowhere.
In the fall, the shutdown was motivated by rapid case growth within the first two weeks of students returning to campus. On-campus housing was at a much higher occupancy level than it is now, there was no comprehensive testing plan in place and UNC had not clearly defined its terms for an off-ramp.
This semester, some of the conditions have changed. COVID-19 testing has grown dramatically in both scale and in rigor, on-campus housing occupancy has been reduced and we know University leadership knows how to “off-ramp” classes. But there is still no clear explanation of how it might decide to do so.
The University believes these changes are enough to hold back the tide of COVID-19 spread. However, we are in a much different situation than in the fall. On Aug. 10, when fall classes began, there were nearly 50,000 new cases in the U.S. On the first day of spring classes, there were more than 170,000 new cases.
And yet, here we are, less than 24 hours away from a return to in-person instruction. Since January, more than 600 positive cases have been reported among students, faculty and staff. In the past week, we’ve been averaging just under 20 cases a day, and four clusters have been announced in residence halls since the semester began. Is that what a rational person would call keeping spread “under control?”
When does our campus caseload become “uncontrolled spread?” When do we see the exit sign for the off-ramp? In the fall, that was when we went from eight to 91 daily cases in just one week. It feels almost inevitable that we will surpass that average in the coming weeks, but will that result in a transition to an all-online format this time around?
Do we want to wait and watch for a second time as the University weighs putting students at undue risk against the monetary loss of shutting down?
A cowardly decision
Regardless of what individual professors decide, in-person classes are happening Monday — the University said so in bold lettering.
Students may begin gathering together in lecture halls Monday, immediately following a weekend during which students gathered for the UNC-Duke game and the Super Bowl. The schedule of these traditionally social events has long been known, yet the University is churning ahead anyway. With the potential for COVID-19 cases to spike in the coming week, one would think it ill-advised to make the transition now.
Sunday’s “decision” is merely performative — it gives the illusion that the administration did something, but doesn't actually change anything at all. What’s going to be different in a week? Students have been openly violating community standards since August — what reason is there to believe they’ll stop now?
Crossing fingers and praying for success is not an effective strategy for an institution with a wealth of resources and knowledge at its disposal. It’s not clear if the administration even has a Plan A, let alone a Plan B or Plan C.
This ignorant, arrogant mindset failed us in the fall. At the rate we’re going, the return this semester could be just as disastrous.
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