University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill jumps back online: our first Toggle Term case study

toggle switch by Alan LevineBack in April I first published three scenarios for fall 2020 classes.  One I named Toggle Term, which is when a campus switches from online to in-person education, or vice versa.  So far few colleges or universities have publicly committed to a Toggle.

Now one has actually done it.  We may have our first Toggle Term case in the wild.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill started its semester with face to face education last week, but today decided to throw the online switch.  Everyone’s sent home over the next two days, except: “Residents who have hardships, such as lack of access to reliable internet access, international students or student-athletes will have the option to remain on campus.”

Let me offer some hasty information and quick reflections:

What triggered the switch? According to the official announcement, infections began right after classes resumed, then took off:

Campus Health Services reported a significant rise in positive COVID-19 tests over the past week (Aug. 10-16). Currently, 177 students are in isolation and 349 are in quarantine, both on and off campus.

According to the chancellor and provost,

In just the past week (Aug. 10-16), we have seen COVID-19 positivity rate rise from 2.8% to 13.6% at Campus Health. As of this morning, we have tested 954 students and have 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, both on and off campus.

That’s out of 30,000 students, or about 1.75% of the total student body, undergrad and graduate students combined (Wikipedia).  Or maybe that threshold is higher.  COVID-19 cases were centered on student housing: “four clusters of infection — three in residence halls, one in a fraternity” (Chronicle of Higher Education).  5,800 students live in campus housing (Washington Post). If we assume 526 likely infections (177+349) out of 5800 residential students, that yields around 9% of that population.

We can see those infections rise on the official UNC dashboard:

coronavirus UNC-Chapel Hill dashboard_new cases 2020 Augst 17

Those positive cases just took off in the past week.

We could also understand this Toggle Term case in terms of housing capacity.  Again with the dashboard, note how on-campus occupancy declined:

coronavirus UNC-Chapel Hill dashboard_housing 2020 Augst 17

But then note how quarantine room capacity just about flatlined.  Four (4) rooms left?  5.5% of the pre-infection total?  As the brilliant Christine Wolff-Eisenberg summarized:

– Weekly positive cases: 10 (8/3-8/9) -> 130 (8/10-8/16)

-Weekly % positive cases: 2.8% -> 13.6%

– Rooms available for quarantine: 45 -> 4

In response the student newspaper struck a very passionate tone.  Here‘s a screengrab from the print edition:

coronavirus UNC Chapel Hill_cluster

Read the whole editorial, but don’t miss the conclusion:

We’re angry — and we’re scared. We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives.

UNC is often recognized for the ambition demonstrated by its students and faculty, and the administration’s insistence to maintain an on-campus presence amid a pandemic can definitely fall under that.

One thing’s for sure — this roadmap leads straight to hell.

Some observations in haste:

A 1.75% infection rate for the entire student body seems to have crossed UNC’s threshold for throwing the switch.  Or perhaps it’s higher if we assume 526 likely infections (177+349) out of 5800 residential students, which is around 9% of that total.  Early in August I asked about toggle thresholds.  Now we have more data.

Speaking of data, how many campuses publish coronavirus dashboards like UNC’s, where they publicly share their infection data?

Campus leadership will likely take a lot of heat for this (for example).  That could take the form of outrage, bad publicity, students withdrawing, and lawsuits.  I’m not sure how this plays out in terms of North Carolina state politics, especially as the November election draws nigh.

A sports-savvy friend tells me UNC is still playing football and other sports.  How much longer?  EDITED TO ADD: another person on Twitter says the game still is played.

One of the clusters took place in a frat house.  Greek houses have hosted infections elsewhere.  Will this lead to a new anti-Greek mentality in the public or among campus leaders?

What impacts this decision could have: it might inspire other open campuses to throw the Toggle.  The decision making process, including metrics, could apply to other institutions, especially those still calibrating their options.  Blowback may inspire others to avoid having Tarheel editorials written about them, as it were.

Many colleges and universities are still weighing those options.  Consider the Chronicle’s estimate of campus fall plans:

coronavirus_college opening plans_2020 August 17_Chronicle

That’s 22.5% (of the sample) still opening up.  That’s also 25% still (!) undecided.  Together it’s nearly 1/2 of American academia not committed to an online semester, or what I dubbed COVID fall.  There is a lot of room for choices, actions, and iterations.

Let me conclude with a note about those scenarios.  COVID fall, Post-Pandemic Campus, Toggle Term: thanks to UNC-Chapel Hill, each is now openly in play as fall semesters kick in.  I only offered the models; I did not estimate their proportion or persistence.  That’s my next task, if I can do it.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with the UNC population, and those connected with them.  I hope they quash the viral spread and avoid both injuries and deaths.

(toggle photo by Alan Levine; thanks to Linda Burns, Maggie Debelius, Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, and more friends for links and thoughts)

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2 Responses to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill jumps back online: our first Toggle Term case study

  1. Joe Essid says:

    What did they expect? We are officially hybrid, but I’m guessing Oct 1 at latest before we “pivot,” a verb we just love on campus, to full remote.

  2. s c mullooly says:

    “We’re angry — and we’re scared. We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives.”

    This quote is a representation of the dehumanization neoliberal higher education structures cause. The burden of student debt–and now covid-19 risk–has domestic students echoing the sentiments international students/scholars have long expressed: treating students like “cash cows” is a form of objectification with individual, familial, and societal consequences, which deserve more critical thought and attention if we are to apply design justice to futures in higher education around the world.

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