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College Road Trip: UNC Students Move Out After COVID-19 Outbreak


The start of the college fall semester this year has been anything but smooth. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students moved in and then immediately moved out, with classes now going online. Students have also been attending parties across the country, and some are being suspended for that. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is on a college road trip and reporting on this firsthand. She joins us this morning from the eye of the storm, UNC Chapel Hill. Good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lovely cicada sounds there.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: College road trip brings me back, but, of course, you've been looking at something else here. What have you been seeing? What's going on?

NADWORNY: So yeah. Right now, I'm on campus at UNC Chapel Hill, where parents and families are here to move students out of the dorms after just a few weeks. If students didn't get a hardship exception, they've got to go home by the end of the month. And, Lulu, I got to tell you it is so weird because just a few days ago, we were at the University of Georgia, watching students move in. Here it's a total reverse. All those fuzzy rugs and fridges are being packed back up to take home. Freshman Cameron McClure (ph) was moving out with her with her dad, David (ph).

DAVID MCCLURE: Her mom moved her in two weeks ago, and Dad gets to come move her back out.

CAMERON MCCLURE: Once we heard about the clusters, we started kind of freaking out. So when they gave us the option of going home, we were all just like, it's probably better for us.

NADWORNY: So many students have brought up what's happening here at UNC. A few days ago, we spoke with Griffin Mills, a senior who's back on campus at Furman University a few hours away in Greenville, S.C.

GRIFFIN MILLS: There's just a different element of dread because I think every day could be the last. There's just this constant feeling of, like, this could be the last time I'm with my friends in class.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, my God. It's so much that they're dealing with. You've been on the road visiting a lot of different schools and students. How are schools comparing?

NADWORNY: So every institution is doing things a little differently. About 30% of four-year schools are online, but there are many with in-person plans. We visited Benedict College, a small historically Black college in Columbia, S.C., and talked to President Roslyn Clark Artis.

ROSLYN CLARK ARTIS: We had a number of students report significant food and housing and security issues. Twelve of Benedict's students do not have access to broadband at home. And so were we to close completely, those students would simply be foreclosed from the education process. They would have no options.

NADWORNY: So the campus there is essentially locked down. They're trying to make it a little bubble.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for campuses that are attempting class in person, what does it look like inside a classroom?

NADWORNY: So we visited a science class at Furman. There were only five students there, 6 feet apart, masks on, three students up on the screen joining the class remotely. I mean, the professor was, like, this technical conductor with headphones on and two laptops. There's cameras and microphones and speakers. And it's why, you know, a lot of students haven't seen tuition get cheaper because, you know, it's expensive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are we going to see a repeat of what happened at UNC at a lot of these other schools?

NADWORNY: Perhaps. I mean, most universities haven't been open with what it's going to take to shut down their campuses. One thing we've seen is that universities are trying to blame students for partying on the failed reopening. We brought this up with Anna Pogarcic. She's the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, the student paper here at UNC.

ANNA POGARCIC: UNC surveyed us at the beginning of the summer asking us about our habits and stuff. And they asked questions, like how likely are you to party this semester? A quarter of the students who responded said very likely. So they've known that this was a risk. And if the success of your plan relies on 18- to 24-year-olds predominantly being responsible, then maybe it's not a very good plan.

NADWORNY: I got to say student newspapers have been doing an incredible job all summer covering this fall semester.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, shout out to student papers. That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny on campus at UNC Chapel Hill. Thank you very much.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.