On Monday, August 17, citing four clusters of COVID-19 infections on campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved all of its classes to remote instruction. Instant outcry followed, with the Daily Tar Heel running its now-famous expletive-laced editorial. In the online version, the editorial is headlined “We all saw this coming.”
On August 21, the paper published an article outlining early warnings the university received about clusters popping up when students returned to campus. Despite the warnings, UNC-CH shut down after just 130 cases, leading many to challenge the university for opening in the first place.
UNC-CH’s failure at reopening is not, however, a scathing indictment upon the idea of reopening. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about establishing appropriate metrics and risk tolerance, a tale of the merits of prudence.
When UNC-CH officials decided to continue with the university reopening plan, they (and everybody else) knew that bringing students back on campus without testing would lead to COVID-19 cases and perhaps clusters. The fact is that while some college students (particularly those who are in at-risk groups) are symptomatic carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the vast majority of college students won’t show symptoms. As a result, unless a school tests every single student on campus right before students move in, there’s no way to avoid an initial cluster.
UNC-CH officials must have expected that at least 130 students would be infected, but that amount represents an incidence rate of less than 1 percent. Students live together. Moving from one’s home environment to a new place with new people is going to lead to some infections. But those cases are all it took to shut UNC-CH down. Why?
UNC System President Peter Hans (among many others) blames students. “This hard work is being undermined by a very small number of students behaving irresponsibly off campus, which unfairly punishes the vast majority of their classmates who are following the rules,“ Hans said on August 20.
It’s easy for adults and even other college students to attack those few students partying and assert that they and they alone are the reason for the loss of on-campus instruction. That assertion just doesn’t hold water. As demonstrated above, the number of cases the school reported on August 17 was low enough to be completely caused by students returning and moving in together. A single fraternity house can hold 50 people. Even if no parties whatsoever occurred, it isn’t unthinkable that there would be a cluster the moment students showed up.
Some students did not help their case by attending packed indoor parties or, in the case of one UNC-CH dorm, building a massive slip-and-slide outside. Those events likely contributed to the spread of COVID-19 and made easy targets for students, parents, and administrators. It’s worth noting, however, that those cases wouldn’t have shown up in the data UNC -CH used to choose the “off-ramp” from its in-person semester. Those parties are not what killed UNC-CH’s in-person semester. It was simply a lack of planning.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and the rest of the school’s administration knew that there were risks to an in-person semester. Instead of evaluating a worst-case or even realistic scenario, they envisioned the most ideal scenario. When that was predictably shattered, it seems the administrators panicked. They didn’t wait to see if their contact tracing and containment worked. They didn’t think of alternative de-densification measures (e.g., allowing students to break housing contracts penalty-free without mandating all students leave). In-person instruction at UNC-CH might still be possible had UNC-CH’s administration taken responsibility and made strides to fix the problems that were apparent. Instead, they shut it all down.
The worst part is that the ones who lose the most from UNC-CH’s decision to move to all-remote instruction are the very one who can least afford it. Students who usually have significant responsibilities at home are being told to quarantine in their homes away from their families, a big ask if a student usually cares for siblings. But home quarantine needs homes big enough to keep infected students safely distanced from the rest of their families.
Poorer families with smaller homes would be at greater risk for COVID to take hold as students, most of whom could weather the virus, are forced to return home to parents, siblings, and even grandparents who might not. Should that happen, the blame for it would fall not on the students, but squarely on the shoulders of the UNC-CH administration.