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UNC Chapel Hill to move undergraduate classes fully remote amid outbreaks of COVID-19

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iStock/smolaw11BY: MEREDITH DELISO

(CHAPEL HILL, N.C.) — A week after its first day of classes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced it will be shifting all undergraduate classes remotely amid several outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus.

Starting Wednesday, all undergraduate in-person instruction will go digital for the rest of the fall semester, Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and Executive Vice Chancellor Robert A. Blouin said in a letter to the school on Monday.

The school leaders said the “current data presents an untenable situation.”

In the past week, from Aug. 10-16, the campus’ positivity rate increased nearly fivefold, from 2.8% to 13.6%, officials said. During that period, there were 130 new confirmed cases in students and five in employees, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard.

As of Monday morning, 177 students were in isolation and 349 in quarantine both on and off the campus. Most students who have tested positive have had mild symptoms, officials said.

Residential halls, which began move-in on Aug. 3, have been hotbeds of virus activity. On Sunday, the school announced its fourth cluster of COVID-19 cases in three days. Three clusters — which refers to five or more cases in close proximity — were found in residence halls, while the fourth was discovered at a fraternity. The school has not released the exact number of cases in each cluster, citing privacy laws.

Cases in Orange County, in which the university sits, have been on the rise since Aug. 11 as well, following a gradual decline since early July. There are 1,475 confirmed cases as of Monday, according to the county.

The school leaders said they made the decision “in consultation with state and local health officials, Carolina’s infectious disease experts and the UNC System.”

“We know that these trends aren’t just affecting our campus: they have escalated the concerns of our neighbors, co-workers and friends in and around the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities,” Guskiewicz and Blouin said. “The health and well-being of the good people of our greater Carolina community are just as important to us as that of our students, faculty and staff.”

The school, which has more than 19,000 undergraduate students, had already started the fall with reduced numbers on campus. Residence halls were at under 60% capacity and under 30% of total classroom seats were taught in-person, officials said.

As of Monday, about 21,000 students were participating in in-person learning, of which 13,262 were undergraduate students, a school spokesperson confirmed to ABC News.

To further help de-densify the campus, undergraduate students currently living in campus housing can change their residential plans with no penalty.

UNC’s graduate, professional and health affairs schools are unaffected at this time, school officials said.

The move comes following calls for the campus to go remote.

In a July 29 letter to the school officials, Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart recommended they consider virtual classes for at least the first five weeks of the fall semester, ABC station WTVD in Durham reported.

Ahead of Monday’s announcement, Barbara Rimer, dean of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, also recommended the school make the transition in the wake of the discovered clusters.

“After only one week of campus operations, with growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others), it is time for an off-ramp,” she said in a post. “We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.”

As for the spring semester, the school will make a decision “in the future, in consultation with our public health experts and local health officials,” a spokesperson told ABC News.

UNC President Peter Hans said Monday there currently weren’t plans to make similar changes at any of the system’s 16 other institutions.

“Each campus is different, and I expect situations to evolve differently,” he said in a statement. “In any circumstance, we will be grounded by reliable public health data and prevailing local health conditions.”

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