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U.Va. hopeful to reopen despite UNC-Chapel Hill reporting hundreds of new COVID-19 cases within a week of starting classes

The University plans to welcome students back to on-Grounds housing Sept. 8

Classroom capacity has been revised to comply with physical distancing recommendations.
Classroom capacity has been revised to comply with physical distancing recommendations.

A University spokesperson said that administrators are “monitoring” the public health conditions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as they prepare for students returning to Grounds in the coming weeks.

UNC announced Monday it is converting to virtual classes after reporting 135 new COVID-19 cases and four clusters in student housing within a week of starting classes for the fall semester — an outcome many fear could happen when U.Va. reopens Aug. 25 online with in-person classes beginning Sept. 8.

“The University is actively monitoring a number of key indicators with respect to the virus, including how it impacts the plans and actions of our peer institutions,” U.Va. spokesperson Brian Coy said in a statement to The Cavalier Daily. “We have developed a comprehensive health and safety plan intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus within the community and to react quickly in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19. The progression of the virus remains unpredictable.”

As of Monday morning, there were 560 reported coronavirus cases and 26 hospitalizations in the city of Charlottesville — an increase of 17 cases since last Monday.

“However, based on the information we have today, we believe these plans, along with the thoughtful cooperation of members of the U.Va. community, will support a successful return to Grounds this fall,” Coy added.

The U.Va. School of Law announced Sunday that one student has tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of Wednesday’s first day of law school classes. The student is self-isolating in Charlottesville, according to an email alert.

As part of U.Va.’s public health plan to limit the spread of coronavirus on Grounds and in Charlottesville, all undergraduate and graduate students are required to take a COVID-19 viral PCR test and present their results to U.Va. prior to returning to Grounds. Students, faculty and staff must also complete a daily check on symptoms related to COVID-19 through the Hoos Health Check app or by email.

In the event of an outbreak of cases in particular areas of Grounds, U.Va. will ask those who have spent time in these areas to be tested. Additionally, students living on Grounds who test positive for the virus or have been exposed to someone with a positive diagnosis will be isolated or quarantined in a designated student housing unit, while students living off Grounds are told to quarantine or isolate on their own.

As of Monday, 177 UNC students are in isolation and 349 students are in quarantine both on and off campus, according to The Daily Tar Heel. Only four rooms remain available in UNC’s quarantine dorm, reserved for those who are identified to be close contacts of an individual who tests positive for COVID-19.

UNC’s decision to pull the plug on in-person classes comes after clusters of cases popped up in three residence halls and a fraternity house — where students live in close proximity to each other — just days after the semester began Aug. 10. A cluster is defined as five or more cases in a single residential hall or dwelling.

The public university, widely considered as a U.Va. peer institution, has about 20,000 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate students. Of that, about 5,800 were living in campus housing — less than two-thirds of capacity — with additional students living off campus. At U.Va., the deadline to cancel on-Grounds housing contracts is Aug. 24. It is therefore unclear how many students will be living in University housing.

Prior to Monday's announcement, many students and faculty members criticized UNC's preventative measures, saying they failed to protect students, staff and the surrounding community by starting in-person classes Aug. 10, roughly a month earlier than several other institutions, and with more than half of its classes having at least partial in-person teaching. By comparison, 27 percent of classes at U.Va. have an in-person component with face-to-face classes scheduled to begin Sept. 8.

In an open letter to undergraduates more than a week before classes started, over 30 tenured UNC faculty members expressed their fears about the university's decision to reopen "too quickly and completely."

"Under current conditions, it is not safe for you to come to campus," the faculty members wrote in The Charlotte Observer. "Stay home this fall."

This article has been updated.

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