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UNC is sending some students back home without testing them for COVID-19

The university plans to ‘de-densify’ campus after a spike in cases

Coronavirus - Back to School
Freshman at UNC walk through campus.
Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Just a week after bringing undergraduates back to campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is sending them home again. After a spike in COVID-19 cases, leadership announced that undergraduate classes will move online for the rest of the semester. They’re spinning up plans to reduce the density in on-campus housing.

There may be other colleges and universities that go through the same dance: open, see case numbers jump, and shut back down. While some schools have reversed decisions to hold classes in person, others are moving ahead with plans to start their fall semesters, including other universities that bring students from all over the country into one place. These schools and students are probably watching how UNC is backtracking and how it plans to send people back home.

The university is encouraging students to leave voluntarily, and it hopes to have only one person in each on-campus dorm room, Jonathan Sauls, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, said in a faculty executive committee meeting. But they have no plans to test all students before they head home, according to the director of campus health, who also spoke at the meeting. Students with symptoms or who have been in contact with a confirmed case can be tested at the campus’s health services.

Sending students home without being tested risks them bringing the virus back home and re-seeding the virus back in their hometowns. “As school goes on-line, they will be spreading disease back into communities with larger fractions of vulnerable people,” tweeted Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington. Bergstrom noted at the start of the month that colleges and universities should be asked about their plans to protect students’ families if dorms close and they have to be sent home.

As of Monday, 177 students were in isolation at UNC-Chapel Hill after testing positive for COVID-19, and hundreds more were in quarantine. Through last week, the test positivity rate on campus jumped over 10 percentage points to 13.6 percent. Such a high positivity rate indicates that the virus is spreading through the campus community. (According to the World Health Organization, anything over 5 percent is cause for concern.) There are likely students infected with the virus who aren’t showing symptoms, and they could leave campus without knowing they’re sick.

Many colleges and universities planning for an in-person semester have space set aside for students who contract COVID-19. But they only have so many beds available. Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, plans to send sick students who live within a certain distance of campus back home if the occupation rate in the isolation spaces starts to tick up. Winthrop University in South Carolina prefers to send any students who are sick or who have had contact with a COVID-19 case back home to isolate and quarantine. “We are not staffed to provide the level of care some students who come down with the virus may need,” a spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed.

UNC brought students back to dorms and for in-person instruction against the recommendations of the county health department, which warned that an on-campus semester could make the area a new COVID-19 hotspot. The university also didn’t test students for the virus when they arrived to campus. Instead, they relied on symptom monitoring, which research shows isn’t enough to prevent outbreaks.

Sports teams at UNC will keep holding practices, the athletic department said. They’re still expecting to compete this fall season.