UNC-Chapel Hill considering timing of graduation, return for fall semester

Seniors at UNC-Chapel Hill may have to wait as late as October to have their graduation ceremony, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told a faculty committee meeting Monday. Students could return for the fall semester by mid-August, he said, but that could change as the university continues to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz during a Faculty Executive Committee video conference on Monday.

“We have some of the best infectious disease experts in the world, ” Guskiewicz said. “They continue to advise us daily on the models that are out there. Even after we see the tail on this — we’re going to see the peak here soon, we hope — it’s the rate of that tail and how quickly it drops off.

“But there’s going to be an extended period of social distancing after that. I’m sure you’re reading and hearing in the news concerns about this thing possibly spiking back up again in November, December, whenever the cold weather comes back. So we just don’t know.”

All UNC System schools moved to online-only instruction last month as the state moved to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Most students left their campuses, though Guskiewicz said about 850 who needed to remain in dorms at UNC-Chapel Hill have been allowed to do so.

As the spring semester moves toward its close in June, students and faculty are asking about whether students may return to campus for the fall semester and when it may be safe for graduating student to have commencement ceremony.

“We are planning right now for our students to return August 16 for convocation, our undergraduate students,” Guskiewicz said. “That is the plan as we sit here today. But I have the registrar beginning to look at some different scenarios just so we can be prepared. What if we needed to go all online for the fall? What if we decided that because the tail has drawn out longer than what we had expected, we need to start the semester two or three weeks later?”

No final decisions will be made until mid- to late June at the earliest, Guskiewicz said.

A graduation ceremony for students now completing their degree work is a priority, Guskiewicz said — but it may have to wait until September or October, by which time models show mass gatherings are more likely to be safe.

Some people — researchers who can do their work while observing appropriate social distancing — may be able to return to campus earlier, Guskiewicz said.

“We would likely have some kind of a gradual re-entry,” he said. “The nice thing is that while we’e being told that we will not have a vaccine by the time we would come back to campus in August to start the Fall semester, we certainly will have better detection methods — many of which we have today that we didn’t have six or seven weeks ago. And we would have to institute that as part of a gradual re-entry of our operations here on our campus.”

Some researchers and clinicians working on COVID-19 are on campus now.

“I’m proud of the fact that we have found a safe way to still operate many of our research laboratories on our campus, many of which are out there trying to help solve these issues we’re dealing with,” Guskiewicz said. “We can learn from that and learn from other parts of the world that are starting to think about re-entry.”

Faculty said they are bracing for budget cuts as the economic toll to the state  is felt well after university life can return to normal. That’s likely, Guskiewicz said, though it’s not yet clear how severe the impact will be or how the university system and individual campuses will deal with it.

“With regard to the budget, I think it’s safe to say that there’s going to be a financial impact with this,” Guskiewicz said. “I see estimates just to the state of North Carolina with regard to the tax revenue, the hit that we might take could be in the neighborhood of $2 billion, potentially more. With that certainly would come some impact to the UNC system and then to the 17 campuses presumably. But we just don’t know what that would look like right now.”

The university is planning for “a variety of scenarios,” Guskiewicz said, and will consider the university’s core mission and strategic plan as it makes needed cuts.

“I’m not a big fan of across the board budget cuts, horizontal budget cuts,” Guskiewicz said. “We’ve all been through that exercise before.”

The UNC Board of Governors meets Thursday and Friday this week and is expected to discuss budget concerns as well as the possibility  and specifics of students and faculty returning to campus.


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