The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is abruptly ending in-person instruction for undergraduates after a cluster of coronavirus cases emerged. The outbreak is a worrying development for education officials and parents looking to send students back to other schools and universities around the country.
UNC Chapel Hill officials announced in-person instruction for undergrads would end Wednesday and be replaced with virtual classes. The decision was made after over 130 COVID-19 infections were reported, with clusters confirmed at four residences. More than 300 students were quarantined as of Monday, and others scrambled to make plans to return home.
In a statement, the university said it was "in close contact with local public health officials and are continually assessing our current protocols to make any necessary changes to further protect the health and safety of campus."
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the school had been prepared for the possibility. "We have emphasized that if we were faced with the need to change plans — take an off-ramp — we would not hesitate to do so, but we have not taken this decision lightly," he said, CBS affiliate WNCN reported.
The sudden change left many students disappointed.
"I was super surprised. I didn't think they were going to send us here and then just send us home a week later. That's pretty crazy," freshman Peter Geretz told the station.
But Dr. Dyan Hes, a pediatrician in New York City, said she was not shocked by the reversal.
"It is not surprising to me at all," she told CBSN anchor Vladimir Duthiers. "They should not have been opened."
She compared New York City school reopening guidelines — in-person instruction if the new case rate is less than 1%, and shutting schools if they exceed 3% — to North Carolina's 5.4% rate.
"Why is North Carolina opening at all with a predominantly state school and the rate of COVID is too high in their state?" she questioned.
Hes said the campus outbreak is "not shocking" because of the very nature of college life.
"You put kids in a crowded living situation — oh yes, theare going to trigger it even more — but if you're in crowded housing, which is a dorm with a shared bathroom and a shared common kitchen, without their parents' supervision, many of these kids are not going to keep their mask on all the time…because they feel like they're at home."
The UNC statement reminded students of a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors, and outlined other measures the school was taking to reduce the risk.
But Hes believes many institutions around the country are trying to bring students back too soon.
"We're putting so many pressures on these kids to get back into school, into college, but without doing it the right way," she said.
She blamed some colleges' rush to return to in-person schooling on their dependence on athletic programs.
"I think that a lot of the schools that are bringing back all the students at once arethat are going to lose a ton of money without a football season," she said. "I think that was prioritized before the students' health."