Anger, Confusion, and Resignation as Chapel Hill’s Campus Rapidly Empties

Even the freshmen knew this wasn’t going to last.Walk through the campus here, and you find young women like Gabriella Lopez and Lindsey Ware, who thought they might get just a small taste of college life after a dismal spring that saw them isolated in their homes for the final months of their senior year of high school.Ware, who came from outside of Raleigh, N.C., had already missed out on her senior prom and high-school graduation. “I deserve to have my college experience, whatever that experience may be,” she said on Tuesday. “I thought we’d at least be here through Labor Day weekend. I was like, They’ll have a handle on it for a month.”

They’ll kick us out by the time our payment goes through.

“I just wanted the college experience a little bit,” said Lopez. “I’ve been telling everyone: They’ll kick us out by the time our payment goes through.”That’s more or less what happened. After starting classes on August 10, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced on Monday that it would shift instruction online after a spike in coronavirus cases among students. The university said 135 students had tested positive for Covid-19 last week, in three separate clusters in residence halls, plus another in a fraternity house. On Wednesday it identified two new clusters, one in a dormitory and another in a fraternity, but the university could not confirm how many more students had been infected.Students here now are struggling with a series of questions: Should they move out, or will the university kick them out anyway? Will they get their money back? They seem jarred, but not surprised. After all, they had seen — either in person or on social media — the parties at the Greek houses, the impromptu “slip and slide” in front of one of the dorms. They knew peers who pretended to engage in social distancing, only to go out for some in-person socializing.But the biggest question on everyone’s mind, among students, professors, and perhaps even some administrators here, is this: Should the university have opened at all?“The wildcard has always been what was going to happen off campus,” said Mimi V. Chapman, chair of the faculty. “Almost immediately we started getting word that Greek organizations were having off-books rush events. There were videos of people saying this is going on in our neighborhood.”The university had made a “Herculean” effort to prepare the campus during the spring and summer. But, she said, “there were a different set of assumptions about what would be going on with the virus.” The virus might have abated over the summer. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted the politicization of masks,” she said, “that basic public-health measures would be considered some statement of masculinity or things like that.”Since May, UNC had been locked into a reopening date in August. It rolled out a “Carolina Together” marketing campaign, with stickers on buildings and walkways, telling people where to go, which doors to use to enter and exit, to wear a mask. Signs planted on wires stuck in the ground across the campus give passersby what seem like user-tested slogans: “Apart but Not Alone” and “Love Will Bridge the Distance.”

Travis Dove for The ChronicleWelcome signs still decorated a dormitory’s bulletin board at Chapel Hill on Wednesday, two days after the U. of North Carolina flagship decided to move to entirely remote learning.

That last slogan seems optimistic when housing a bunch of teenagers away from their parents for the first time in 18 years. But UNC officials decided to open, faculty members and students say, despite knowing what the university was up against. Despite being urged by the local health department last month to move courses online. Despite the fact that Covid-19 cases were climbing throughout North Carolina in the weeks leading up to the move-in date. Despite warnings and pleadings from university employees, who feared for the health of their colleagues and students. Despite, on the Friday before the start of the semester, the university‘s inability to say whether it would have enough classrooms to accommodate all the spread-out courses.“There’s a number of videos featuring the chancellor showing how to safely enter a building and use hand sanitizer and social distance, and we still didn’t know if we were even going to have enough classrooms or tent spaces,” said Emily Burrill, director of the African Studies Center. “I don’t know what to make of that. If their plan was to open campus and teach classes, you’d think that one of the first issues they’d try to remedy is making sure they have the space to teach the classes in the first place.”The moment has thrown everyone into chaos. On a corridor between Ehringhaus Residence Hall and the campus dining facilities, students expressed a range of emotions about the cancellation of in-person courses and an impending sense that the university would send people home anyway.Ware said the email from the university had made it seem as if students could stay if they wanted to, but she has heard that she must leave unless she can justify staying, as an international student or a student with socioeconomic needs. “It was so stressful,” she said. “I moved in 11 days ago.”The first two weeks at college, she and Lopez said, delivered only a hint of what a real school year might have been like. Lopez described watching a beautiful sunset one evening. “We got our masks on,” she said. ”All of us were on our balconies, and these guys had this giant speaker, and we’re just playing music, like singing along.”“It felt like we had a great sense of community,” she said, “and it sucked to be leaving that.”

I think the school was naïve in thinking that they could open up. I was naïve, too, thinking they could contain this.

Other students were disappointed and angry. “I think the school was naïve in thinking that they could open up,” said Ogechi Nwobu, who had come from New Jersey. “I was naïve, too, thinking they could contain this. It’s kind of embarrassing.”For others, the situation is more urgent. Ibraheem Al Saghier, a sophomore in computer science, had registered for two in-person classes. He had obtained special permission from the Saudi Arabian government to leave his country, and worked to find a flight that would take him to North Carolina.The day before he arrived, the university shifted his courses to online, and now most of his peers are leaving. “The borders are closed — I’m not sure I can leave,” he said. He might be stuck in the dorms. He said he might seek out a pod of stranded international students to keep him company.Nila Patel, who had driven up from Charlotte, N.C., to pick up her son and a cousin, worried about the effect of the canceled semester on the students’ mental health.“It’s sad,” she said. “My heart breaks for them because it really is an experience they’re missing out on — that normal experience. Now they’re going to go back into their little isolated world again.” But Patel, like many others, never expected the students to reach the end of the semester.As a fall semester, this seems to have been an anemic one anyway. The campus feels sparsely populated. Many of the restaurants on the main street adjoining the campus are closed. Buildings feel dangerous to walk through. The university has set up, in the middle of a quad, a big tent that serves as an outside classroom.Imagine the expense of that, or of the “Carolina Together” marketing campaign, or of the slew of contracts the university had signed to provide dining, facilities, and residential-life services through the semester, said Burrill, the African Studies Center director. She had been encouraged to set up small-scale guest lectures, to show that the university could pull those off, she said. She decided not to try it.Surely there will be painful cuts in the years to come to cover those costs. But there have been personal expenses, too: Burrill knows faculty members who bought parking passes because they didn’t want to take public transit to teach on campus. One colleague sank his own money into a tent, so he’d be safe meeting students outside on campus.She said some faculty members had a betting pool for how far into the semester the university would get before it had to cancel in-person classes. No faculty member she knows supported opening. But administrators, she said, had pointed to the university’s world-class public-health school and its “Carolina Way” culture — which values respect for the community — and insisted that if UNC couldn’t get through a semester, no university could.“Now we have become a superspreader for the state and for the country,” said Burrill. “It feels like someone died. There is a sense of grief, but also relief.”She mourns UNC, seeing the events of this week as another blow to its reputation. “It’s just sad,” she said. “It was a painful, unnecessary, tragic experiment.”The university has suffered several such blows in recent years. In 2017 the books were effectively closed on a pervasive academic-fraud scandal involving phony classes that had helped Tar Heel athletes remain academically eligible over an 18-year span. More recently, Silent Sam, the commemorative statue of a Confederate soldier that stood at the entrance to the campus, was toppled by protesters; its relocation became the subject of a legal settlement that was eventually thrown out. Leaders of the institution have come under increasing political pressure — first from the Republican governor Pat McCrory, then from Republicans in the legislature and the university’s conservative, politically appointed Board of Governors. Many people on campus speculate that the governing board drove the reopening plan.In the past day, the administration has pivoted its messages in response to the closure. In a recorded video, the chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, expressed sympathy for the university’s whipsawed students. “I know the transition to online learning and moving from residence halls in the next few days is disappointing to many,” he said. “This is not the semester we wanted for you.”In response to complaints that students were faced with the grim prospect of having to move out of their living spaces while classes were continuing unabated, the chancellor said that professors had the discretion to pause their courses. “In this time,” he said, “you can expect compassion, support, and flexibility from everyone in our community.”Still, some students complained about unclear messages, particularly about dining and housing refunds. The university has said it wouldn’t penalize students who canceled housing contracts and would seek only a prorated charge for the use of rooms. More than half of the students living in campus housing have canceled their contracts and scheduled move-outs, the university said.Patricia Parker, chair of the communication department and a faculty leader, said she and other leaders had pushed the administration for transparency, for details about the cleaning operations and the stress on the housekeeping staff, and for the rationalizations behind an in-person fall semester.The problem, she said, is “unilateral thinking” at the top levels of the university. Those leaders could make this right, but they have to start listening to the community.“What we would often hear is that ‘students want to come back,’” she said. “What I didn’t hear was whether that was a good reason to open.”Or maybe the situation at UNC stands for something outside of North Carolina, said Chapman, the faculty chair.“We’re part of a national situation,” she said. “We haven’t united around a common message and a common set of beliefs. Expecting an institution to get it right when the entire country is not getting it right is maybe expecting too much.”Jack Stripling and Michael Vasquez contributed reporting to this article.

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