ORANGE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- The University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill held an emergency meeting on Wednesday afternoon to clarify the university's reopening after Orange County health officials recommended that the university consider virtual classes for the beginning of the semester amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During the meeting, UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz announced that it had been working closely and taking advice from the Orange County Health Department for months and speaking with Stewart and Erica Pettigrew on a regular basis.
The school says it will be opening with 65 percent occupancy at resident halls. In class, only 30 percent of students will be allowed. All large lectures would be taught remotely. The school is also offered an increased frequency of routes due to reduced bus capacities.
Students were officially allowed to move in on Aug. 3.
"We've made modifications to our plan and taken advice from them along the way," Guskiewicz said.
Earlier in the day, in a letter to the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill officials, Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart recommended the university consider virtual classes for at least the first five weeks of the fall semester.
The July 29 letter was addressed to Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin and Vice Chancellor George Battle.
Stewart noted Orange County has seen a total of 1,241 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 45 deaths. According to Stewart, the daily case count has nearly doubled over the last month with increases in cases in the 18-24 age group (22 percent) and 24-49 age group (37 percent).
"As students have begun to return to campus prior to the official start of the Fall Semester we've experienced a small fraction of what we will see if the campus fully reopens and all the students return for in-person class. In the last 4 weeks we've seen positive COVID clusters among UNC staff and athletic teams," said Stewart in a written statement.
The school announced back in July that 37 people within Tar Heels athletics--coaches, staff and student-athletes--tested positive for the virus.
Stewart and the Orange County Health Department recommended the following to UNC leaders:
- Restrict on-campus housing to at-risk students with no access to equitable educational resources and those with true housing needs (i.e. International students, Carolina Covenant & marginalized students)
- Consider virtual classes for the entire fall semester but at minimum begin the first five weeks of the semester with online instruction only with plans to reassess the situation at the five week mark
Stewart said the goal of limiting on-campus housing is to "create a situation where students that need to return to campus are able to do so in a single occupancy room."
In the letter, Stewart said Orange County COVID-19 numbers were originally driven by the older age group earlier in the pandemic but are now being seen in younger groups.
"Today we are seeing more cases with the younger age group and more community transmission and asymptomatic cases than originally seen," said Stewart. "For this reason, if the first five weeks of instruction is virtual, we may be able to reduce further spread of the virus by eliminating in class instruction which would create more opportunities for close contact and possible viral spread."
Stewart also noted increased activity on Franklin Street, resulting in clusters in those who have visited local restaurants and bars. She also mentioned off-campus parties and gatherings at Greek houses.
Capacity issues with testing, contract tracing and chemical reagent supplies have resulted in significant test result delays, according to Stewart. She said many labs are seeing a five-to-seven-day turnaround in results.
Those returning to the UNC campus began to move in on Aug. 3. Classes are scheduled to resume Aug. 10.
Stewart also noted Chapel Hill is heavily reliant on public transportation, used by college students and healthcare workers. She said there are no solid plans to maintain a safe volume of rides while adhering to the state mask mandate.
"OCHD understands that this decision is difficult and requires consideration of many perspectives," Stewart said. "We do not offer this recommendation lightly, and we recognize that there will be educational, economic, and logistical challenges. OCHD is providing this recommendation from the public health perspective with the best information we have at the current time during these extraordinary circumstances."