Lessons Learned from UNC's Failed Reopening

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

When I wrote earlier that the fall semester at Chapel Hill would be a test case for broader reopening in society, this isn’t quite what I had in mind.

UNC has been in the national news as one of the first schools to reopen — and now one of the first to pivot back to teaching exclusively online. These are not the headlines we’d been hoping to make, and certainly not the outcome we wanted for students or the wider community.

But to a significant extent, we chose to be the canary in the coal mine on the theory that a public university with the resources and research capacity of Carolina had an obligation to make the effort. There are real costs to remaining online-only, and not just financial. The support services and social experience of campus life matter a lot for equity and student success, even if the quality of online learning is strong. In any case, there is no point in failing if you’re not willing to share lessons learned, so here goes:

-  Beginning with teaching and learning, we found that it’s possible to keep classrooms safe with masks and appropriate social distancing. As far as I know, contact tracing at Carolina turned up no instances of classroom spread. At the same time, a lot of us learned that a face-to-face classroom with required masking/distancing precautions is actually inferior to a fully online classroom. At least Zoom classes allow everyone to see facial expressions, hear all participants in the classroom, and avoid the unsettling experience of being one of 25 students in a classroom with 100 seats. “Hy-flex" class — “hybrid-flexible,” where some students are online and others are in the classroom — are the worst alternative by far. Unless you’re in a specially (and expensively) outfitted classroom with all the high-tech gear needed for that kind of hybrid discussion, having a passel of masked, spread-out students in person and a bunch of others online was a compromise not worth making. As long as we are living with the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the online learning experience is probably better than a muddled face-to-face experience.

-   A number of positive surprises emerged from teaching online over the first two weeks. Students and faculty seem more comfortable with Zoom than they were in the spring. Office hours are well attended. Class discussions and group work go at least as well over Zoom as in person and in some cases better. Online allows for large classes to break easily into smaller groups in ways that can’t be accommodated in a traditional lecture hall. Surprisingly, faculty seem to be more not less accessible in an online environment.

-    We learned the hard way that university housing makes real social distancing impossible. UNC’s first COVID-19 cluster of five or more cases emerged less than a week after classes began, and it was followed by many more — mostly centered in shared housing. Unless a strict policy of sheltering in place is adopted for student housing and density is dramatically reduced, it is not feasible to even consider congregant living arrangements. A strict lockdown combined with massive testing might make a difference, but that hardly seems like a campus experience that will appeal to a significant number of students. Stringent policies that are tough to enforce on campus will prove even more challenging in off-campus housing.

-   We also learned that most students — and, crucially, their parents — prefer a residential experience even if the actual classes are all online.  Knowing that the majority of courses would be taught online, and that any individual student had the option of learning remotely, the vast majority of students returned to Chapel Hill for the fall semester. When classes switched back to entirely online and students were encouraged to leave the dorms, there was a huge rush to off-campus housing as an alternative to returning home. Now, even with undergrad classrooms shuttered, there’s an off-campus housing shortage around Chapel Hill. The ultimate impact of this ad-hoc, student-led decision to stay “at college” is yet to be determined. But in the near-term the burden of student safety is shifting from gown to town a scary prospect for the average citizen who is now living among thousands of young people who just moved from campus to the town of Chapel Hill.

-   We quickly saw the disproportionate impact that fraternities and sororities have on spreading the virus. Aside from outbreaks in the fraternity and sorority houses themselves, it appears that many of the hot spots were triggered by what we politely term “Greek life.” Both the university and the town were concerned about frats and sororities from the beginning, and those concerns were totally warranted. We probably would have been forced to pivot online even without them, but one thing is certain: in the age of Covid-19, you can’t have an open campus and open frats. Until there is a vaccine, shutting down Greek life is a requirement for any shot at reopening.

Our understanding of what’s possible in the COVID era is already much improved since March and April — three cheers for outdoor gatherings! — and as we work through this crisis, our understanding of how higher ed can better meet its mission will undoubtedly improve as well.

UNC’s attempt to fully open was not triumphant, but it can still prove valuable. At the very least, we provided a vivid case study for those schools who plan to reopen in the next several weeks. Bottom line — If you plan to reopen—don’t.


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