ATLANTA — Citing an “untenable situation” caused by a spike in coronavirus cases after the first week of classes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said on Monday that it would shut down in-person instruction for undergraduates and move entirely online.
The announcement, from one of the largest universities in the country to open its campus during the pandemic, demonstrated how difficult it may be for America’s institutions of higher learning to achieve even a modicum of normalcy in the fall semester.
Criticism and worry continue to plague other colleges hoping to offer in-person learning this fall. In the last few days, widely circulated images of young people congregating without masks near campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., home of the University of Alabama, and around Dahlonega, Ga., home of the University of North Georgia, have raised concerns about students’ cavalier attitudes to social distancing measures.
On Monday, about 50 protesters at Georgia Tech in Atlanta staged a “die-in” to oppose in-person learning at their university.
U.N.C. Chapel Hill, with 30,000 students, started classes on Aug. 10. Officials said 177 students had been isolated after testing positive for the coronavirus as of Monday, and another 349 students were in quarantine because of possible exposure. Officials said that all undergraduate instruction would move online starting Wednesday.
“We have not taken this decision lightly,” the school’s chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, and provost, Robert A. Blouin, wrote in an email announcing the change, which they said was made after consultation with local and state health experts, as well as infectious-disease experts at the university.
Before starting classes, U.N.C. issued a strict mask mandate for most university spaces, indoors and out, and called on students to practice social distancing.
Students were also given an online learning option called “Carolina Away,” which proved popular: According to the school, residence halls were at less than 60 percent capacity, and less than 30 percent of total classroom seats were filled.
But the number of confirmed coronavirus infections spiked anyway. In the first week of school, the campus health clinic saw the test positivity rate rise to 13.6 percent from 2.8 percent.
Some critics were frustrated that university officials opted to take the chance at all, given the state’s ongoing struggle to contain the virus: The number of new cases reported daily in North Carolina climbed steadily from March to mid-July. Although on the decrease in recent days, the state is still averaging 1,266 reported new cases per day.
“We all saw this coming,” wrote the editorial board of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper, in a blistering opinion piece that circulated widely on Monday.
University leaders, the board wrote, “should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless. Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise. Though these students are not faultless, it was the university’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on.”
The paper noted that coronavirus “clusters” of five or more cases had been reported Friday in two student housing facilities. On Saturday, a third cluster was identified at the Sigma Nu fraternity house. A fourth cluster at another student residence hall was identified on Sunday.
The university said that it would help students leave campus housing without financial penalty, and that international students, athletes and students who lacked reliable internet access back home could remain in student housing if they wished.
Many students expressed disappointment and frustration after the announcement on Monday afternoon.
“Just seeing the lack of precaution in the student body, this outbreak is not surprising,” said Katherine Fitzgerald, a freshman from Boise, Idaho.
“It’s just hard to watch and see some people having fun and letting loose and not remembering that our education and our college experience might get jeopardized because they want to have fun and are just being reckless,” she added.
Grace Ratley, a senior from Niceville, Fla., said the university probably should not have opened at all. “I think it was just a really bad idea,” Ms. Ratley said.
The university’s athletic department said in a statement that it still expected its students would be able to play fall sports, but that it would “continue to evaluate the situation.”
“Our student-athletes will continue to attend online classes, and may choose to remain in their current on- and off-campus residences,” the department said. “Workouts and practices will continue under the standards set by our university, health officials and department.”
The university is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has scheduled its football season to open in September. But the juxtaposition of playing sports while the campus is broadly closed to ordinary academic life — U.N.C. is scheduled to host a game in Chapel Hill on Sept. 12 — could prove complicated.
College sports leaders have long fretted over how they and their universities would be perceived if games went on while in-person classes were deemed too risky.
A spokeswoman for the A.C.C. referred to a statement issued last week, in which the league said it would “continue to follow our process that has been in place for months” and that it was “prepared to adjust” as warranted.
U.N.C. sounded a similar note in its statement on Monday and said that “the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, and community remains our priority.”
Jannat Batra and Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta, and Michael Venutolo-Mantovani from Chapel Hill, N.C.
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