Commentary, COVID-19

Washington Post on UNC: Don’t let this happen to your university

In case you missed it, The Washington Post had a fine editorial in yesterday’s paper that highlighted the dreadful reopening failure that’s spreading through the UNC System.

The central premise: It’s time to stop letting our schools play footsie with the coronavirus and for our nation to get vastly more serious about the virus. This is from “To save education, we must fight the broader pandemic”:

TODAY, THERE are about 56.6 million primary and secondary school students in the United States, and about 20 million students are enrolled in colleges and universities. As the fall semester begins, they all stand at a precipice. We share the conviction of many educators, parents and public health experts that education must not be allowed to fall apart during the pandemic. But hopes are fast colliding with reality. Outbreaks at several universities suggest that schools everywhere must use extreme caution before going ahead with in-classroom schooling.

The experience of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is instructive. The university, with nearly 30,000 students, started classes Aug. 10. By Monday, 177 students had been isolated after testing positive for the coronavirus and another 349 were in quarantine because of possible exposure. The university had a strict mask mandate and asked students to practice social distancing; residence halls were reduced to less than 60 percent capacity; and fewer than 30 percent of total classroom seats were filled. But, partly due to social gatherings of students, infections soared; the first week, the campus health clinic saw the test positivity rate rise from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent.

On Monday, the university abruptly switched to online classes only. Mimi Chapman, the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chair, told NPR after the announcement that the university had some of the best public health communications staff in the country. ‘If we can’t bring those resources to bear in the way that we did with a more successful result,’ she said, ‘I think it should give every other large public university in the country pause before going forward.'”

After pointing out that UNC is far from the only school to endure such an experience, the editorial puts it this way:

“Fully remote instruction is not realistic. Science students need to conduct labs and clinics in person. Testing, and more testing, offers one important strategy for schools that must proceed. If students can be screened often enough to detect and isolate those who are sick, there is a chance others on campus can do their best learning in good health. But all schools — from kindergarten through graduate programs — are woven into the society they serve, so they are threatened by the failure of the United States to control the virus. Only a better job of fighting the pandemic will enable schools to do a better job of educating.”

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