Many Universities Are Replaying Their Fall Plans This Spring. These Two Are Making Changes.

In some ways, it’s July all over again. Coronavirus cases are surging across the country to previously unheard of numbers while colleges are creeping closer to a daunting new semester. They’re sending out plans for how they’ll reopen, but filling those emails with caveats that the plans could change.

Many institutions have decided not to change much from the fall. If they are remote now, they will likely be remote again in the spring. But administrators at a small handful of universities have looked at the data, the availability of testing, and missteps from the fall and decided to make some changes. Two of those are in the same state but have vastly different profiles.

First take the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The campus invited undergraduate students back last summer and started classes in person on August 10. But a spike in coronavirus cases, particularly in residence halls and fraternities, forced the university to quickly shift to online instruction and ask students to leave. Most of the 5,800 students living on campus moved out, and numbers of cases dropped dramatically.

Last week, university leaders announced the spring 2021 plan, and it includes a series of changes that they hope will prevent what happened in August from happening again in January.

For one, they’ll bring back 3,500 students rather than 5,800. (In normal times the university has upward of 9,000 students living on campus.) Secondly, those students will live in single-occupancy rooms, and the university will increase the amount of space available for students who need to isolate.

The university will also require students to take a Covid-19 test when they return to campus. Officials are currently piloting several types of tests and testing locations around campus with the 1,500 students who are still there to determine what will work best for the larger group in the spring.

“We built a strong, detailed plan for our fall semester,” Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the chancellor of the university, said in an interview. “Some of it worked really well, and other parts of the plan did not work well.”

Guskiewicz said that through contact tracing, the university was able to determine that the spread of the virus happened in places where people live and at off-campus gatherings, not in dining halls, classrooms, libraries, or the student union. Single-occupancy housing should help with spread in residence halls, but off-campus parties are hard to control. Guskiewicz said he’s been working with behavioral scientists on campus to think about what they can do to modify students’ behavior and that the campus police have been patrolling together with the Chapel Hill Police Department.

“So there’s more joint policing in the community, especially on weekends, to try to, again, force and break off any gatherings,” he said. “We’ve got very few of those over the past eight to 10 weeks.

University officials have work to do to win back the trust of many campus employees. A report published recently by the Employee Forum, a group of university staff and faculty members, revealed that many employees want more transparency and are angry at the decisions leaders made.

“You didn’t listen to the people who were put at risk by your choice to reopen campus,” one anonymous commenter said. “Your mostly white and affluent administrative staff failed to address the disparities inherent in this pandemic and in your decision to reopen.”

Guskiewicz said another change this time around is that he’s created a committee, co-chaired by the student president and the chairs of the Faculty Council and the Employee Forum, that will review plans going forward.

“I acknowledge that we needed to do a better job of bringing more voices to the table,” he said. “I’m really proud of the way in which we’ve done it.”

Change in a Different Direction

Almost 150 miles away, Queens University of Charlotte is making changes that will bring more people together compared to their fall plan. After seeing a spike of new cases in the area in July, Queens officials decided classes would be remote this fall.

“A huge piece of it was testing,” said Jen Johnson, the vice president for enrollment management and marketing. “Testing was unavailable, the turnaround time was seven to 10 days, a lot of people couldn’t get a test without symptoms.”

Given that the university is in the middle of the city and students work and have internships, she said, officials knew they couldn’t create a “bubble” or a protected zone free from outside contagion like other small, private colleges have tried.

But now, things are looking a little different. Queens has new technology that will allow professors to teach some students in person and others online, simultaneously. Testing is easier and more available. And Queens has had success, so far, with bringing a small group of athletes back to campus. So this spring, they’ll make “in-person classes available,” though a letter from the president said “those courses will be hybrid in order to keep density low.” They will also have fewer students in the residence halls than a normal semester.

Still, Johnson said the university had hoped to be in person in the fall and had to change course as cases rose. That could happen again.

“Just when one decision is behind you,” Johnson said, “the other is on top of you.”

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