BuzzFeed News has reporters around the world bringing you trustworthy stories about the impact of the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member.
Classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had already been taking place for six days when school administrators abruptly canceled in-person lessons for the rest of the fall semester.
For the first few days, students and faculty followed the new protocol in the classroom: Students had to use hand sanitizer and wipe down their workstation. Specific doors were marked as entrances or exits. Each chair had a sign asking people not to move it. Masks were mandatory. Everyone seemed to be complying with the new rules, a student told BuzzFeed News.
But then on Monday, students received an email from the university’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, and executive vice chancellor, Robert Blouin, saying that effective Wednesday all in-person undergraduate classes would shift to remote learning after a spike of COVID-19 cases on campus.
“Around 3 or 4 p.m. yesterday my phone started blowing up,” a 21-year-old student told BuzzFeed News. “I saw the emails and text alerts first, then people were posting about it all over social media. I felt like we all knew it was coming, but it was just a matter of when. I'm honestly kind of surprised that it happened this fast, though.”
The timing of Monday’s email wasn’t ideal. In less than two hours after it was sent, the deadline would pass for receiving a 95% refund for fall tuition. After that, students would only get 80% back. In an email to BuzzFeed News, the university did not provide any update about whether tuitions would be fully refunded.
“I definitely feel it was unfair for UNC to unload this info right before tuition was due,” one 20-year-old statistics student, who asked to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “It made it seem like a highly calculated maneuver, a cash grab if you will.”
The student went on to say that “it feels like money is being prioritized over the health and safety of the general public.”
Four undergraduate students who spoke with BuzzFeed News described their frustration with the sudden cancellation, the lack of clarity from UNC on how remote learning and refunds will proceed, what this means for their on-campus housing, and a lack of accountability for Greek life, where one COVID-19 cluster was reportedly discovered.
During the first week of in-person classes, 135 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on campus — 130 students and five employees, the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper, reported. The campus was quarantining students in a specific dorm, it added, which was filling up quickly.
“UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote on Aug. 17 in a searing piece that accused the university’s administration of not being transparent about coronavirus numbers on campus and ignoring reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the county health department.
“We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives,” the Aug. 17 editorial read.
The editorial also appeared to criticize the university’s reopening plan, titled “Carolina’s Roadmap for Fall 2020,” which was shared with students in late May and described a combination of in-person and remote classes.
“One thing’s for sure,” the Tar Heel editorial board wrote, “this roadmap leads straight to hell.”
“It didn’t seem like anyone really knew what was going on,” said the 21-year-old undergraduate student, who also asked to remain anonymous, in reference to the school’s plan. She said she and her friends assumed over the summer that in-person classes would be canceled eventually, but the university didn’t announce anything. “It didn’t feel real,” she said.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, the university emphasized its decision to “de-densify” the campus based on the rising COVID-19 cases.
The students told BuzzFeed News they are also irate that they’ll be paying full price for fall tuition when taking classes remotely.
“My parents are justifiably a bit angry at the move because it feels like I am getting an inferior education now for the exact same price,” said the statistics student.
The 21-year-old undergraduate echoed this sentiment, noting that students wouldn’t be using campus facilities, and it wasn’t clear whether tuition would be adjusted accordingly.
More than 3,100 people had signed an online petition, created in July, asking the university to cancel in-person classes for the fall semester.
“I really wish UNC and the Board of Governors had handled this better,” the 21-year-old said. “No one seemed to listen.”
Since in-person learning began, several students have been violating social distancing and mask-wearing, especially those who live at the sorority and fraternity houses, Sarah Kim, a 21-year-old undergrad studying psychology, told BuzzFeed News.
The Tar Heel reported a COVID-19 "cluster," which the university describes as at least five cases in close proximity, at the Sigma Nu frat house, and the Indy Week shared a video of dozens of sorority members, none of whom appear to be wearing masks, heading to a party.
“UNC isn’t saying anything about Greek life and their big role in having these events spread COVID-19,” Kim said. “They never seem to hold these students accountable. The administration should have anticipated that the fraternities and sororities would act like this.”
The director of fraternity and sorority life at UNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Kim said she has friends who are contemplating moving back home.
“UNC should have given these kids more time to decide,” she said.
On Tuesday, other colleges across the country followed suit: The University of Notre Dame announced in-person instruction will be suspended for two weeks, and Michigan State University said the fall 2020 semester will move online.
“The option to have in-person classes should not have been presented to the students to begin with,” said Gigi Cloney, a 20-year-old student studying public policy, “and the responsibility should ultimately be placed on the decision makers who allowed this situation to happen.”
Despite the health risks, Cloney decided to live on campus this semester because the environment is a good motivator and she prefers learning in person. She isn’t sure if she’ll be refunded for room and board, but she plans to move back home soon.
“My family has already budgeted for this semester, so if we are forced to move out and are not given a refund, that would be very frustrating,” she said.
Monday’s email from the chancellors said students will be able to request residence hall cancellations with no penalty.
The 21-year-old student had canceled her contract to live on campus before Monday’s email, saying, “the CDC deemed our dorm re-opening plan ‘highest-risk’ and I wasn't trying to live in a suite with a bunch of people I don't know.”
For plenty of students, the announcement seemed inevitable, if late. But the 20-year-old statistics student said the cancellation has given him mixed emotions. He said he initially wanted to go back to campus to see his friends, but in-person learning felt "like a pretty irresponsible move."
“In many ways, it probably makes my life easier and I will be more safe,” he said. “But I can't help but feel I'm being somewhat robbed of a normal college experience.”