UNC Reversal: Phase 3 of COVID Transition is Getting Bumpy

At the end of March I shared a view of four phases for higher education’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of remote and online learning. Phase 1 was the spring rapid move to remote teaching, Phase 2 was the summer move to try and add back in the basics of online education, Phase 3 is the chaotic fall, and Phase 4 is the transition to a new normal, hopefully starting in early 2021.

Graphic showing four phases of higher education response to COVID-19 in terms of online learning adoption.

Phase 3 is indeed turning out to be an “extended transition during continued turmoil”.

Institutions must be prepared to fully support students for a full term and be prepared for online delivery – even if starting as face-to-face.

While I think this four-phase model still holds, I did not think we would have this much turmoil this soon in Phase 3.

The big story this week is UNC’s reversal, away from a significant face-to-face fall to a remote fall. As described by Inside Higher Ed:

Just days after welcoming students to campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday told undergraduates to move out of their dorms, go back home and prepare to complete all their courses online.

The déjà vu-style announcement came as the university updated its COVID-19 “dashboard” for the first week of the semester. Between Aug. 10 and 16, Chapel Hill tested 954 students for coronavirus. Some 130 tested positive, along with five employees. With those tests, the university’s virus positivity rate shot up from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent. Some 177 students were in isolation and 349 were quarantined. The university had just four empty rooms left in quarantine, meaning 69 were occupied.

While UNC will not be alone in this type of transition, I suspect this move will be the trigger for a much bigger wave of reversals, much in the same way as Stanford University’s move to remote teaching was in early March. 1

The problem in UNC’s case is bigger than just a decision on remote teaching for the fall.

[Jennifer Larson, a teaching associate professor of English] also wondered during the meeting how the university might try to repair its reputation nationally and locally, where groups of students have been observed hanging out without masks, according to social media reports. The campus has been the site of one of the biggest faculty movements against reopening, with North Carolina case counts growing over the summer. A group of tenured faculty members wrote an open letter to students last month urging not to return to the campus and to study from home instead. The UNC System, which had insisted all its 16 campuses reopen, is also facing a class-action worker safety lawsuit.

I do not think that Phase 3 will move to broad-based remote or fully-online across the US in the same way that we saw in Phase 1, which is why the model above shows the turmoil of moves back-and-forth for the fall. But I do think this UNC decision will have an outsized impact and show how much different spring and fall will be.

Update 8/18: Announced today – The University of Notre Dame halts in-person classes for two weeks, and Michigan State University reverses course and plans fully-remote fall.

Two more major research universities are walking back plans to resume in-person undergraduate instruction, continuing a rocky rollout for fall reopening plans across higher education.

The University of Notre Dame announced Tuesday afternoon it will suspend in-person classes for almost 12,000 students, moving undergraduate classes online for two weeks while keeping students on campus and giving it a chance to reassess its plans and a rising coronavirus infection rate before classes resume. The announcement came at virtually the same time Michigan State asked undergraduates who had planned to live in residence halls to stay home and that it will transition classes planned for in-person instruction to remote formats.

1 The University of Washington and Seattle University decisions preceded Stanford’s, but at the time Seattle was seen as a unique locale of the pandemic. Stanford’s decision was different in showing that the issue would not be contained in one locale.