COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill housing policies, density change as pandemic concerns intensify

It’s been a rough week for the UNC System — particularly its flagship campus, UNC Chapel Hill.

First, it was revealed that the Orange County Health Department recommended the school move online-only for the Fall semester and restrict on-campus housing to a bare minimum. The school did not disclose those recommendations to faculty, students or the community and only responded to them when they were reported by media outlets, including Policy Watch.

The school’s lack of transparency was condemned by students, faculty and local elected officials.

On Wednesday evening, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz defended the school’s decision not to follow the health department’s recommendations at an emergency Faculty Executive Committee meeting.

Instead, he said the UNC System had told campus administration to “stay the course” and continue with their reopening plan. He also touted several lesser measures the school is taking that address the health department’s concerns.  The two largest: reducing full capacity dorms to 64 percent capacity and classroom capacity to 30 percent.

But in a press conference Thursday, UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin clarified that the reduced residential capacity on campus isn’t the result of a plan by the school but the result of masses of students cancelling their housing contracts.

“We thought it would be better if students made the determinations more on their own rather than being directed in one way or another,” Blouin said.

The provost said the administration has been trying to “encourage dedensification of the campus.” Among those have been the “Carolina Away” program allowing more remote learning. It was initially thought a few hundred students might use the program, Blouin said, but somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 are now planning to use it.

But the primary reason the dorms have become less dense is that students cancelled their housing contracts, either because of health concerns or because more of their classes went online.

Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing.

The extended deadline for getting out of housing contracts without financial penalty is August 7. Students can cancel for any reason.

The school further clarified in a follow up e-mail.

“As outlined in the Roadmap for Fall 2020, all residential students may cancel their housing contract for any reason and without penalty prior to 5:00 p.m. August 7, 2020,” a spokesperson wrote in the email.

“After August 7 or following move-in, whichever comes first, a student-initiated contract cancellation will be accompanied by the standard cancellation costs, and that individual student will receive a prorated credit,” they wrote. “Students who elect a course schedule of remote learning for all classes before the Fall 2020 late registration deadline of August 16, will have no cancellation costs or penalty and will receive a prorated credit.”

“However, if the University moves to fully remote instruction as an off ramp during the semester, the University and Carolina Housing will work with the UNC System to determine whether the University is able to issue housing refunds to residential students,” they wrote.

After that date, any student whose classes are all online can cancel their housing contract without penalty, Blouin said. Students wishing to do so can contact the Carolina Housing via email.

With two dorms being used as isolation and quarantine dorms for those exposed to or positive for COVID-19 there are 7,877 available beds on campus, said Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing. Right now there are about 4,990 students scheduled to live on campus, Blattner said.

It is not clear the degree to which classroom density, which the university says will be down to 30 percent, is the result of moves to actively reduce capacity or of professors shifting their classes online.

There has been a movement among professors at many UNC schools to move as many classes online as possible as administrators have not been willing to officially move all instruction online.

This week Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty council, said she will herself be teaching online-only following the Orange County Health Department’s recommendation.

“I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department,” Chapman wrote to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in an email Wednesday.

Calls and e-mails to the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill for clarification on system and university policies and density reduction measures were not returned Thursday.

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