Schools struggle to return during coronavirus pandemic

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the largest schools in the country to bring students back to campus and attempt in-person teaching, said Monday it will suspend in-person instruction for undergraduates in a dramatic turnaround just a week after classes began. The school has been struggling with coronavirus clusters.

The shift signaled enormous challenges ahead for those in higher education who are pushing for professors and students to be able to meet on campus. Officials announced the abrupt change just a week after classes began at the 30,000-student state flagship university.

They said 177 cases of the dangerous pathogen had been confirmed among students, out of hundreds tested. Another 349 students were in quarantine, on and off campus, because of possible exposure to the virus, they said.

The remote-teaching order for undergraduate classes will take effect Wednesday, and the university will take steps to allow students to leave campus housing without financial penalty. The actions are likely to reverberate in North Carolina and beyond, including other major public universities that have hopes of playing college football in the fall. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Tar Heels teams play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The public health conditions at UNC-Chapel Hill were being closely watched as colleges and universities around the country move this month toward the first day of class, some with entirely remote instruction and others with a mix of teaching online and in person.

Among 100 major public universities — two per state — an analysis from Davidson College found that 23 have plans to teach primarily in person or offer a “hybrid” of face-to-face and online. Those with in-person plans, the analysis found, include the universities of Alabama, Georgia, Iowa and Kentucky.

Reports have emerged of risky gatherings of students in close quarters, without masks, in college towns including Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, and Dahlonega, home of the University of North Georgia. A cluster of 23 confirmed coronavirus cases also hit a sorority house at Oklahoma State University.

At the University of Notre Dame, which is also one week into its term, there have been 58 confirmed coronavirus cases this month. The prestigious Catholic university, with 12,000 students, is teaching primarily in person.

But Notre Dame officials are keeping a close eye on off-campus parties in South Bend, Ind. “That has caused us concern,” Paul Browne, the university’s vice president for public affairs and communications, said.

In the week before class started Aug. 10 at UNC-Chapel Hill, 10 students and one employee tested positive, according to the university. But clusters of cases piled up in the residences known as Granville Towers, Ehringhaus and Hinton James, as well as the Sigma Nu fraternity house, according to text alerts the university sent students in recent days. A UNC-Chapel Hill dashboard shows 130 students tested positive last week out of 954 tested. Five employees also tested positive.

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