Courtesy of Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

As students have returned for the fall semester to their universities, we have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases all around the Triangle – University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), Duke and NC State (NCSU). 

Since August 2, Duke has had a total of 67 cases: 46 students and 21 staff. They have done a total of 43,775 tests.

As of August 17, UNC announced they will be moving all undergraduate in-person classes to remote learning. Since February, UNC has had a total of 1,199 cases: 1,129 students and 70 staff. Since July 1 (students only) they have done a total of 4,490 tests.

Similarly, as of August 24, NCSU’s undergraduate classes were moved online for the remainder of the fall semester. August 27 to September 6 were their move-out dates with appointments. Appointments create 30 minutes intervals from 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. throughout the move-out dates, students and their families should pack up and return keys to the community service desk by their scheduled appointment. Since August 24, NCSU has had a total of 1,077 cases: 1,035 students and 42 staff. They have done a total of 11,162 tests.

Duke has been the most successful when it comes to containing the coronavirus, one big reason being mass testing. 

“Exciting to see that Duke was kind of on top of it in terms of testing, right from the get-go,” said Tommy Hessel – Duke Student Body President.

They have asked students to self-isolate for 14 days and get tested before coming on campus. Duke has set up multiple pool testing – a person goes to a site to get tests – areas all around campus making it convenient for the students/staff. They also have a symptom tracking app where they fill out daily forms to make sure they are all good.

They got their students to sign The Duke Compact pledge. Students pledge to follow most to all guidelines – wear a mask/face covering, physical distance, wash hands, avoid large gatherings, stay home when ill, keep confidentiality, follow instructions and guidelines, etc – to keep the campus as safe as possible. 

“Duke students have been very smart [about regulations],” said Hessel. 

When asked if students were following and taking the safety regulations seriously, Hessel said there were a few hiccups the first week but they have gotten a handle of things. He explained it was tackled using different methods with resident coordinators, a few emails and a couple of suspensions. Off-campus students are a bit trickier to track.

“[There are] always ways to improve,” said Hessel. 

One of those ways is better contact tracing. Duke has a team of health professionals that walk through the past two weeks of a COVID-positive student and try to figure whom they need to contact next. However, Hessel has a better idea: Novid, a contact tracing app that shows if you were near other students, a method that is not subject to human memory loss.

“Definitely not all [every student] gone be following safety guidelines,” said Hessel.

When asked how Duke is continuing to ensure or enforce the safety and wellbeing of students, Hessel said Duke has been using both carrot and stick approach. They have thrown a lot of stick, things like suspension, strict reinforcement of the Compact, resident coordinators going around and writing students up, breaking up large groups of students, restricting Wi-Fi if not complying and restricting parking. Now they are looking into carrots, things like large-scale funding for food for undergraduates paid for by the student affairs office; for those who are complying for a certain amount of time (10 days, 15 days, 30 days), reward food, early registration and etc. Finding different ways to hold the entire class accountable.

“Duke is doing a pretty good job,” said Hessel.

The main reason for their achievement has been the mindset of their students/staff. The student body has embraced Duke’s health guidelines and The Duke Compact. 

 “[I] applauds the whole Duke community,” said Hessel

UNC, on the other hand, has been having a bit of a tough time when it comes to containing the virus around their campus. 

UNC has the basic regulations of mask-wearing, social distancing and isolating, but the part they seem to be missing is mass testing. 

According to the News & Observer, when UNC health experts were asked about testing they said, “It could…create a false sense of security for individuals who think that a negative test means they don’t need to be as diligent about following protective measures like physical distancing and wearing a mask.”

Nina Scott, an off campus freshman at UNC, said while it’s hectic and disappointing to not have the freshman experience that she thought she would have, she is happy to not have to pack up and get sent home and to be safe from reckless students. Scott felt that the community was angry about students returning to UNC’s campus.  

“[It was] irresponsible for UNC to allow people on campus,” said Scott

“They don’t really care about the Chapel Hill community, they’re coming here for college,” said Scott.

Some students are from out of state, they get on planes to come here. She believes that if UNC put more restrictions on Greek life and not allowed students to go into each other’s rooms/dorms, they might have had more time before a spike. These loose restrictions have caused a lot of parties to be held and police claiming they can’t enforce regulations

“Just about every single public school will be alike somehow,” said Scott 

As she said, NCSU is also having the same issue where they opted out of mass testing and have a spike in COVID cases. NCSU’s website stated they “cannot guarantee a COVID-19-free environment.” Which nobody truly can, but they were a few steps behind to make it a little better for everyone.

“If it doesn’t need to be in person, it’s not going to be,” said Melanie Flowers, NCSU Student Body President.

Although NCSU was able to change a lot of their campus resources to virtual and were able to de-densify their campus and make more testing available, they seemed to have been a bit late. She explained that there was a lot of compliance over the summer. 

“By the time we hit move in, in the first couple days, the plans kinda became irrelevant,” said Flowers. 

Any freshman would be super excited about their first year of college and that was the case with freshmen at NCSU. Regardless of a pandemic, the social life of college had not changed; there were a lot of parties on campus and at East Carolina University (ECU), at least about a 100 students attending, which Flowers believes is one of the reasons they got hurt and had a tough time controlling the virus. Another factor is not pushing the self-report system. 

“[That] hurt us because the community is depending on contact tracing,” said Flowers.

Except for helping your community and peers, no fun comes out of reporting yourself, and in these cases, it would be better to consistently remind students why self-reporting is important. 

“If that tool wasn’t used, then the University really has no teeth in slowing the spread or alerting people,” said Flowers. 

Greek life has been a big spot for clusters at most Universities. When asked how they play a role in NCSU’s COVID cases, Flowers said that there is “definitely a need to keep organizations accountable.” 

Regardless of Greek life or not, some kids went partying.

 “[It is] scary to come back to a place that is full of people all over the country and a few other countries,” said Flowers.

When comparing NCSU’s performance to other Universities in the Triangle, “all just as bad and just as good,” said Flowers 

Another challenge that has Flowers worried is the mental health crisis. During hard times, you lean on your people, not stay 6 feet away from them, and virtual interaction is as close as we can get to people without 6 feet in between. That has taken a toll on most people.

Through this crisis, University Student Body Presidents do collaborate. They were in touch most of the summer planning the return of their students and are still collaborating on what worked well and where they needed to improve.  

Some colleges are doing better than others, but with the Student Body Presidents working together, high school seniors including current students hope safe environments can be achieved across the board. 

About Keti Alemayehu

I am a sophomore at Carrboro High School and a staff writer for the JagWire. I love reporting news around the world!!

2 thoughts on “North Carolina Colleges Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic

  1. Thank you Keti for working on this reporting. This is pretty informative and I like the comparative writing to show effort/ measures between the three Universities. Keep it up!

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