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Students wear masks on campus at at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The university announced that it would cancel all in-person undergraduate learning starting on Wednesday following a cluster of COVID-19 cases on campus. Credit: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

NEW YORK — The worst part about watching students pack up to leave one of the country’s largest public universities this week, just days after arriving?

Knowing just how predictable — and preventable — all of it was.

After videos of mask-less college parties went viral, a rapid coronavirus spread on college campuses seemed inevitable. The week in-person classes began, four virus clusters and a rising number of cases at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, left administrators scrambling: They quickly reversed course, announcing that all undergraduate learning would be remote while residence hall occupancy would be reduced.

“The current data presents an untenable situation,” a memo sent to students on Monday said.

And what of the “die-in” protests by faculty, graduate students and cafeteria workers at the flagship campus, worried about their health? The pleas for safety to come first? Ignored.

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“You spoke. The University didn’t listen,” proclaimed a scathing editorial in The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper, which listed at least nine missteps the school had made in reopening. A later Tar Heel editorial gained attention for its bold and spot-on headline, and noted, “We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives.”

In other parts of the country, concerns about bringing students back to campus are growing, even with detailed protocols in place about testing, cleaning and quarantining. The World Health Organization this week warned that young people in many countries are becoming the main drivers of virus spread. Decisions are changing daily.

“The lack of federal response and guidance has left colleges really figuring it out and holding the bag.”

Sean Rossall, CEO and managing partner of the strategic communications firm RW Jones

The University of Notre Dame changed course on Tuesday as cases grew, suspending in-person classes for at least two weeks. Michigan State told undergraduates who were ready to move in not to bother. Columbia University, facing a backlash after pushing to bring 60 percent of undergraduates back on campus and urging professors to offer more in-person options, reversed its decision last Friday and said fall classes would be virtual. Columbia’s president cited the 14-day quarantine mandated by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for students arriving from overseas and from an ever-growing list of U.S. states – now numbering 34 – as a chief reason for its reversal.

Colleges that still plan on reopening classrooms and campuses are spelling out a list of restrictions students must follow when they return. They look a lot like solitary confinement, although with internet access, of course.

“You cannot visit friends’ rooms, you cannot go do laundry, you cannot go outside for a walk, you cannot go shopping, you cannot have visitors to your room, and you cannot take public transit,” says an edict from New York University, which still plans to have in-person classes and students living in dorms.

Really? No wonder skepticism about how students will handle all of this abounds. “Do people who think we can safely reopen colleges know any 19-year olds? Do they remember being 19 themselves?” Paul Krugman – a Nobel laureate and long-time college professor – tweeted last month.

At UNC, concerning memos were sent to students all summer. One said the coronavirus numbers were not “where they should be,” and another spoke of “de-densifying” the dorms so that a reopening could proceed. (Is “de-densifying” even a word?) The school promised extensive safety precautions, from capping residence halls at less than 60 percent capacity to reducing the number of in-person classes taught.  

None of the memos mentioned the real reasons behind the chaotic re-opening decisions: preserving brands, pressure from governing boards and state legislatures in red states where safety concerns have been minimized, a dire need for tuition revenue.

Instead, college presidents – knowing their reputations have been forever stained – are quick to blame the actions of students off campus or proclaim surprise – despite clear warning signals about the “velocity and magnitude”  of the virus spread.

“The virus is a formidable foe,” Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said in a video address to students, stating what has become obvious to anyone tracking infections in the area.  “For the past week, it has been winning.”

Long before the pandemic, as The Hechinger Report reported recently, many colleges and universities were struggling financially, reeling from risky behavior and poor management decisions. More recently, uneasiness about online learning and a rebellion against high costs have pushed colleges toward resuming normal routines well before that might be advisable.

Related: How higher education’s own choices left it vulnerable to the pandemic crisis

Nathan Wesley, a senior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, unpacking books he had just arranged in his dorm room. Credit: Photo courtesy of Nathan Wesley.

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall who has been tracking institutions’ virus-related decisions, said many remain moving targets. “As UNC shows, this will continue to evolve,” Kelchen said Tuesday during a webinar sponsored by the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “If you have students coming to campus from any distance, you basically have one shot of getting them onto campus in the fall. The costs of failing are substantial. It’s a brutal environment.”

UNC’s shot is over. The flagship campus opened despite all warnings earlier this month, and students –with bulletin boards, laptops and extra-long dorm sheets in tow – showed up on schedule; some 5,800 students moved into UNC dorms.

“Everyone in the community voiced their opinions that this university should not reopen, but they decided they weren’t going to listen to us.”

Nathan Wesley, senior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

They hugged parents goodbye, posted photos of newly decorated dorm rooms and got ready for parties and classes that began on Monday, Aug. 10. By that time,  police had already responded to parties off campus, including at a sorority rush house.

Nathan Wesley, a 21-year-old senior, immediately wrote about his concerns after spotting scores of students walking through the quintessential college town, many headed to fraternity parties.

“I’m thinking, this is crazy,” Wesley, assistant arts and culture editor at The Daily Tar Heel, told me. “Three frats were having a party that night. There was music blasting and lots of people dancing and not wearing masks. The social scene is pretty big here, and a lot of students were just getting their first taste of college freedom.”

Wesley did not expect in-person classes to last long. “Everyone in the community voiced their opinions that this university should not reopen, but they decided they weren’t going to listen to us,” he said.

A week into the experiment, UNC students were packing up and posting videos of their newly stripped-down rooms, while wondering where to go next. From Monday to Tuesday this week, daily cases in North Carolina nearly doubled to 1,200, and how high they’ll climb remains one of the many unanswered questions in a region where 30,000 students account for more than a third of everyone living in the area.

Elsewhere in the country, re-opening plans remain fluid, said Sean Rossall, CEO and managing partner of the strategic communications firm RW Jones. “I don’t know that there is a great solution here,” Rossall told me. “The lack of federal response and guidance has left colleges really figuring it out and holding the bag.”

As for Wesley, he’s either going back home to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, or moving in with friends off campus. If he can, he may also get a coronavirus test; two of his friends have the virus, and another is quarantined. “There was going to be no way for this campus to be filled with students and not have the virus spread,” he said.

This story on in-person classes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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