UNC-Chapel Hill made national headlines last month when a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases caused the university to cancel on-campus instruction six days into the fall semester. Within a week, N.C. State University and East Carolina University had followed suit.
All three have reported more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases on their campuses, which are now largely empty of students and faculty. But at area colleges and universities, the coronavirus seems to be under control for now.
All of the four-year institutions in and near Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Boone have reported COVID-19 cases, but their numbers are far lower — and are growing much slower for the most part — than those reported at UNC-CH, N.C. State and East Carolina. Except for Bennett College and Salem College, which went with virtual classes for the fall, no area school has made the pivot from on-campus to at-home instruction since the fall semester began last month.
N.C. colleges and universities all adopted similar plans to combat COVID-19 — lots of mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing, reduced capacities in classrooms, dorms and dining halls, restrictions on gatherings, and a mix of online and in-person classes — so it's unclear why what seems to be working at area schools failed elsewhere. But in interviews this week, campus leaders heaped praise on their students.
"Let me say ... how pleased I am with the direction that we're going, how pleased I am with your participation in this process," Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Elwood Robinson told students at an online town hall Wednesday night. "It is because of you that we stand ready to beat this virus and to live a different kind of life."
The Winston-Salem Journal compiled campus COVID-19 statistics for a chart that runs with this story. Here's a look behind some of these numbers.
The most cases
Appalachian State University has reported more COVID-19 cases — 321 as of Friday — than any other college or university in the area.
But here's some context: Appalachian State's number dates to March 27. (Most area schools go back no further than July 1.) And with more than 20,000 students, Appalachian State is the largest N.C. university still holding some classes on campus. UNC-Charlotte, which has more students, won't begin in-person instruction until at least Oct. 1.
The rise in student cases at Appalachian State remains a concern. Since Aug. 17, the first day of fall semester classes, 156 students have tested positive for COVID-19. That's about 60% of the 255 reported student cases since March. But the number of active cases and positive test rates remain relatively low.
Since Aug. 17, the number of active on-campus cases has ranged between 30 and 65. Friday's number was 53 — all students. The university said it hasn't had to use more than 25% of its off-campus quarantine space at any one time.
Appalachian State said that voluntary on-campus tests of 3,500 students and employees between Aug. 10-30 produced a positive rate of 2.4%. During the first two weeks of classes, 3.6% of nearly 1,600 students and employees tested were positive for COVID-19. Statewide over the past month, daily positive test rates have ranged from about 5 to 8%. At UNC-CH, positive test rates hit 19% in late August. The worst week at East Carolina saw a 27% positive rate.
Appalachian State said it put a lot of time and effort into its COVID-19 response plan. The university says it seems to be working.
"This coordinated planning accounts for a multitude of scenarios, risk assessments and mitigation strategies," Chancellor Sheri Everts said at a faculty and staff meeting on Sept. 4. "Regardless of their course delivery methods, our students’ attendance shows they value an Appalachian education and the experience — no matter how changed — that comes with it. We have witnessed behavior that indicates most students are concerned about their health and the health of other students, as well as faculty and staff."
Michael Behrent, chairman of the university's Faculty Senate that recently passed a no-confidence vote in the chancellor, said at that same meeting that campus health and safety measures appear to be "largely effective."
But he said that faculty members struggled all summer to get clear explanations from senior administrators on a range of campus issues, including the reasons for reopening the campus during a pandemic. He added that professors aren't sure they're getting accurate and timely information on how fast and how far COVID-19 has spread on campus.
"While it is important to acknowledge these accomplishments ... it is equally important to recognize that they have come at a price," said Behrent, a history professor. "When it comes to university reporting about health matters, distrust among faculty is, to the best I can tell, profound and widespread."
The fewest cases
UNC School of the Arts has no active cases on campus, according to its online dashboard. It has recorded only four cases among students (one case) and employees (three cases) since July 1.
With nearly 1,350 students between its university and high school divisions, UNCSA is one of the smallest schools in the area. Fewer than 700 students live on campus.
The fastest rise
High Point University has seen a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases this month. On Sept. 1, two weeks after classes began, High Point said it had 21 active student cases. As of Friday, that number had grown to 167, or 3% of its student body. High Point's COVID-19 dashboard for the first time Friday showed active cases — four — among faculty and staff. No other area school has reported as many new cases this month.
At other area schools, a mix of online and face-to-face classes are the norm. But High Point students are taking in-person classes on campus, "which is the overwhelming desire of students and their parents," the university said in a statement provided to the Winston-Salem Journal. The number of cases, moreover, "is not uncommon compared to colleges and universities throughout the nation."
One factor that might have contributed to the sudden surge in reported cases: The university's new student health center, operated by Novant Health, turns around COVID-19 tests more quickly than most other schools.
"Our results are not trickling in," the university said, "but are instead being provided in near real time."
The quick turnaround also has sped up the contact tracing process, treatment of ill students and quarantining of students exposed to the virus. It also means the university's total case count might drop quickly, too. High Point said it expects about 100 students to have recovered from the virus within the next week.
For now, there's no talk of closing campus and moving instruction online. The university said it's able to quarantine students in campus housing and isolate ill students off campus. Before the semester began, High Point rented entire floors of off-campus hotels to house sick students. The university said it's providing all the food, health, cleaning and security services to students staying at these hotels and can get more rooms if needed.
High Point said it told students they could leave campus and take classes online. The university said less than 1% of its students opted to finish the semester at home.
Area campuses seem to have largely avoided clusters of COVID-19 cases that led to the pivots at UNC-CH, N.C. State and East Carolina. A cluster is five or more confirmed cases in people in close proximity, such as a residence hall, off-campus house or apartment, fraternity or sorority house or an athletic team.
Of the 75 clusters reported at N.C. colleges and universities since students returned to campus in August, three-fourths occurred at UNC-CH, N.C. State and ECU, according to a Winston-Salem Journal analysis. Only two have been reported at area schools: one among Appalachian State's football team Aug. 18, and another in its wrestling team Sept. 1. No other area school has reported a COVID-19 cluster this semester.
In May and June, Appalachian State (two) and UNCG (one) had COVID-19 outbreaks among construction subcontractors working on campus projects. An outbreak of nine cases was reported in early August in Appalachian State's child development center. In all three cases, it doesn't appear that the coronavirus spread to students.
While most area schools have public dashboards that give some information about COVID-19's presence, only three are using alert levels to describe campus conditions.
As of Friday, Elon was at Level 1 (of four). It identifies Level 1 as the "new normal," where cases are rare, disease transmission is controlled and students and employees must continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and check their health daily.
Wake Forest on Friday was at Yellow: New Normal Campus Operations, the second-lowest of five levels. Wake Forest's yellow level is similar to Elon's Level 1 designation.
Guilford College is operating at High Alert, the second highest of four levels. Under its low-density plan, classes are being held, and students are living on campus. But there are limits on student gatherings, dorm room occupancy and dining services, some campus facilities are closed and some student services are offered remotely instead of in person.
All area colleges and universities put together detailed plans to address COVID-19 — how to prevent it, how to manage the virus if it spreads, what to do if it gets out of control — before students returned to campus this fall. Leaders at two area universities gave credit to their students for helping to make those plans work.
They said the vast majority of students are wearing their face coverings, keeping their distance, staying away from large gatherings and adhering to a long list of new community standards aimed at keeping them healthy.
At UNCG, which has recorded just seven new cases since Sept. 7 and 64 since July 1, students didn't want to leave campus in the spring when the university decided to finish the semester online. They were thrilled to be able to return in the fall, said Julia Jackson-Newsom, UNCG's associate vice chancellor for strategy and policy.
"They really want to be here," she said. "They've made that clear (to us), and they've made that clear to each other."
UNCG officials said the absence of standalone fraternity and sorority housing probably helped minimize the spread of COVID-19. About a quarter of the COVID-19 clusters on N.C. college campuses in the past month happened at Greek-life houses. At N.C. State alone, clusters were reported in 14 houses in the university's Greek Village.
Zachary Smith, UNCG's emergency management director, said the university's virus response plan was designed to be flexible as conditions changed. So far, he said, the university hasn't had to make major changes to its plan. That has given UNCG the chance to start planning for the spring semester.
There is one new wrinkle: Jackson-Newsom said about a week ago UNCG began offering optional COVID-19 tests to students living on campus who aren't in quarantine and don't show symptoms.
"This is an attempt to get at what that underlying foundational number might be," Jackson-Newsom said.
Other schools that have done similar screening tests have said the positive rates have been relatively low. That's encouraging, she said, "but we'll see what (results) we get back."
At Wake Forest University, which has seen 30 new cases in the past week and 71 since mid-August, students and their parents got a clear and constant message all summer about the new campus expectations, said Penny Rue, vice president for campus life. Even better, she said, student leaders are reminding other students that the campus experience must be much different this fall. She said that reinforcement seems to have made a real difference.
"There was buy-in and a collaborative effort," Rue said. "They went out to their peers and said, 'This is for all of us.'"
A looming threat
The one thing that keeps university administrators up at night: student parties.
Off-campus parties in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Greenville contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 on those campuses. Local college leaders are hoping the same situation doesn't play out in the Triad.
Officials at UNCG, N.C. A&T and Wake Forest say they're keeping a close eye on social media for announcements of parties and other large gatherings. Sometimes students will tip them off about parties. When administrators get word, they dispatch university police to make sure gatherings comply with state law or school policy.
Area universities seem serious about enforcing these new campus rules. Elon University last month banned seven students from campus for allegedly organizing off-campus parties that violated university rules. Rue said "a few" Wake Forest students face possible suspension for their alleged party-planning roles.
UNCG said about 80 students have been referred to the student affairs office for attending excessively large gatherings, refusing to wear masks and not cooperating with contact tracers. UNCG spokesman Jeff Shafer said the vast majority of students will be warned, though a small number of students could be suspended. He cited federal privacy laws for declining to give a more precise number.
Rue said she has ridden along with Wake Forest police as they cruise neighborhoods near campus looking for student parties. They're still happening, she said, but they're smaller and well under the university limits of 10 people inside and 25 people outside. The traditional parties to welcome first-year students to Wake Forest aren't happening this year. Instead, she added, "what they're saying is, we want to hang out with our friends in the backyard."
Keeping student gatherings small is crucial, Rue said. Universities where COVID-19 cases have surged due to large parties have run into several problems. Parties attended by hundreds of students overwhelm the contact tracers trying to gauge the potential spread of the virus. That, in turn, overcrowds the spaces set aside to quarantine students. Universities then run short of people to take care of large numbers of sick and quarantined students.
Rue said she's cautiously optimistic that Wake Forest students can remain on campus through Thanksgiving, when all classes are scheduled to move online through the end of the semester. But there's one more looming issue.
"We're all subject to people getting tired of the restrictions," Rue said. "We've seen this among non-college people, too. I hope we can keep it up."
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.