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UNC Charlotte delays in-person classes due to COVID cases

UNC Charlotte will delay students’ return to campus until Oct. 1 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, university officials announced Sunday.

UNCC will open on Sept. 7, as scheduled, but only for online classes. The start of in-person instruction for undergraduate and graduate students will be delayed by three additional weeks.

The move comes after UNC Chapel Hill opened for mostly online classes early this month, only to return to online-only instruction after COVID-19 outbreaks.

The change will allow more time for Mecklenburg County’s coronavirus cases to stabilize, UNCC Chancellor Sharon Gaber said in an online message. Gaber took office on July 20, succeeding Philip Dubois, who retired.

“In recent weeks, Mecklenburg County has seen COVID-19-positive cases start to decline and public health officials are encouraged by these trends,” Gaber wrote. “However, the county continues to have the highest number of outbreaks and clusters in the state. While the community is making considerable progress to slow the rate of transmission, we do not want to lose this momentum.”

UNC Charlotte delays in-person classes due to COVID cases DUSTIN DUONG

Mecklenburg identified a small number of new cases at two senior living facilities last week, but hospitalizations, the positivity rate from tests and the number of new infections have continued to improve. As of Saturday, the county had recorded more than 24,000 confirmed cases and 278 COVID-related deaths.

“Our numbers continue to rise but at a slower rate,” county Health Director Gibbie Harris said at a news conference Friday. “Our spread is low and stable…. We have to continue with the preventative measures and get tested if you need it.”

UNCC has reported four cases among students, faculty and staff at its main campus, according to an Aug. 18 update. The university has about 29,000 students, and officials say fall enrollment has been consistent with that of the previous year.

Wanting to be ‘proactive’

Gaber told reporters Sunday that the county health department had encouraged the university to delay in-person classes. While virus metrics are improving, they’re still not where health officials would like them to be.

“We wanted to be proactive and announce (the change) before students get back,” potentially avoiding making them move out again, she said.

The planned Oct. 1 return to classrooms could change if conditions warrant, Gaber said. There’s “always that possibility” that UNCC students could end up studying remotely throughout the fall semester, she added.

The general agreement among UNCC, the county health department and UNC system officials, she said, is to “give this a little more time before we make a 15-week decision.”

Accommodating the change

In addition to the three-week delay in in-person classes, undergraduate classes will be suspended on Sept. 28 and 29 to allow students to move in and transition to on-campus instruction, UNCC officials said.

The move-in dates to residence halls will be Sept. 26-29. nu Residence hall officials are trying to see that only one student lives in each room, Gaber said.

UNCC will continue to offer on-campus housing and dining services for students who are already on campus. The university said it will honor the original move-in dates of Aug. 31 to Sept. 6 for international students and others with approved extenuating circumstances.

Students who live on campus will be allowed to stay even if online classes continue through the fall semester, unless changes are required by health conditions, the university said.

Online tutoring will be expanded, especially for freshmen, UNCC said, and research labs, the library and other campus facilities will remain open.

Also Sunday, UNCC said the Charlotte 49ers’ football home opener scheduled for Sept. 26 against Georgia State at Richardson Stadium will be played without fans due to coronavirus concerns.

‘Top priorities’

“The decision to adjust our plan was not made lightly,” Gaber said in her online message. “I recognize that these changes will be frustrating for some and a relief for others. However, this decision is made with the health and well-being of our students and employees as our top priorities.

“The decision to adjust our plan was not made lightly,” UNCC Chancellor Sharon Gaber said. Daniel Miller

“The additional time allows the county’s infection rate to further stabilize, creating a safer environment for our university and our community this fall. The safety of our campus will continue to guide all of our discussions and our planning.”

UNCC will hold a virtual town hall for students and families at noon Wednesday.

Gaber warned against parties and other events that pose “real dangers” and urged students and staff to physically distance themselves from others.

Students who consistently ignore safety guidelines could be suspended, she told reporters.

“We’re making sure students understand there’s an element of personal responsibility if they want (instruction) to be face-to-face,” Gaber said.

The university will open its own testing lab in early September, hoping for results within 48 hours for people who have virus symptoms or have been in close contact with infected people.

It’s also testing the wastewater coming from residence halls for the virus, a practice that will be followed by targeting testing if the virus is detected.

State restrictions limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people and outdoor events to 25 will be enforced, she said, and the university is working with property managers to enforce those standards at off-campus housing.

“Unfortunately, we have seen on other university campuses that the actions of just a few people can impact the experience for the majority of others who uphold community standards,” Gaber wrote.

UNC Chapel Hill reported a new COVID-19 outbreak Saturday in a campus residence hall and a sorority house. Appalachian State University, East Carolina University and N.C. State University have each reported more than 100 coronavirus cases this month.

East Carolina University officials announced Sunday they will move classes online after multiple COVID-19 clusters in the first two weeks of classes.

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Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.

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