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Why UNC-Chapel Hill Decided To Move Classes Online

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In North Carolina, they tried. The state's flagship school, UNC-Chapel Hill, began the school year with in-person classes. Then came COVID-19 outbreaks in three dorms and a frat house in the first week. Yesterday the university abandoned plans to have students on campus. Starting tomorrow, classes will move online. Now let's hear directly from Chapel Hill, where Mimi Chapman is chair of the faculty and joins us now. Professor Chapman, welcome.

MIMI CHAPMAN: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: How disappointed is everybody in Chapel Hill?

CHAPMAN: Well, it's a heartbreaking situation. This is not where we wanted to be. We were very hopeful that a plan could work, although, you know, certainly as the summer wore on and we weren't seeing the kinds of decreases in the virus around the country that we had hoped, tensions and anxieties ramped up even as the campus was opening.

KELLY: Walk me through how this last week has unfolded. The first sign of trouble was word of clusters in two residence halls?

CHAPMAN: Yes, that's correct. I think, you know, certainly as faculty, we began hearing about this on Friday. I began hearing about it on Friday morning. I think it was on - probably on Thursday night, as I understand it, that all of the contact tracing and that sort of thing was going on, so ascertaining exactly where these clusters were and who needed to be tested and isolated and that sort of thing.

KELLY: Right. Are you surprised it unraveled so quickly?

CHAPMAN: Well, I guess, you know, I'm really sad that it unraveled so quickly. I - there were an awful lot of students - if you walk around our campus, there were so many students that were doing a good job of wearing masks and doing what they needed to do from what I could see. It is also clear - and we heard this from the earliest days - that there were a lot of off-campus activities, some of them related to the Greek system, that were flying in the face of all recommendations. And so...

KELLY: Social distancing, masks, that type thing.

CHAPMAN: Exactly. Yeah. So - and those were big parties, and they were hosting first-year students and students that lived on campus. And so, at least as I understand it, the current thinking is that that is how it got back into the dorms.

KELLY: I was struck by a headline in the student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel. They had an editorial yesterday with the headline, UNC has a disaster on its hands, except they used a considerably more profane word that I can't say on air than disaster.

CHAPMAN: (Laughter) Right. I saw that.

KELLY: From where you sit - from the faculty perspective, did they get it right?

CHAPMAN: I think it is just - I think it's more complicated than that. I mean, I certainly understand the outrage and the anger. And yes, there are many faculty members that share that outrage and anger. But it is a complicated calculus, and I don't know that the student newspaper has investigated that quite to the extent that they might.

KELLY: You're suggesting that intentions here were good even if the way it all - has all played out has not been a way anyone would have wanted it to. Is there a lesson learned here, or does this just underscore how very, very difficult in-person tuition is going to be in the middle of a pandemic?

CHAPMAN: Yes. I mean, I think that, you know, UNC has some of the best public health, infectious disease folks in the country, health communications. If we can't bring those resources to bear in the way that we did with a successful result, I think it should give every other large public university in the country pause before going forward. And in that way, I hope that our experience will be a real service to the country and indeed how perhaps the federal government needs to think about these things and help institutions of higher learning preserve all that they offer and the economic engine that they are, even if they have to take, as what we've called it, an off ramp.

KELLY: Professor Mimi Chapman - she chairs the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has just announced it is abandoning plans to have students on campus and moving to a fully online model for the rest of the semester. Professor Chapman, thank you.

CHAPMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.