UNC president says closing the university system in not an option

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As UNC-Chapel Hill announced it would end in-person classes due to coronavirus clusters on campus, students waited outside Woollen Gym in Chapel Hill, N.C. before a fitness class on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

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Last month, just before the holidays, I spent time listening to student body presidents from all of our state’s public universities. We’ve held these Zoom sessions regularly since the start of the fall semester, so I’ve heard firsthand how students are managing through the challenges of the pandemic.

Their experience mirrors what so many of us have felt these past 10 months — a wish that things were different, matched by the resolve to work toward better days. That perseverance will continue into the spring semester.

Since the start of the pandemic, North Carolina’s public universities have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep serving students. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t always gone smoothly. But thanks to dedicated work by faculty, staff, and health officials, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians have continued making progress toward their educational goals.

Campus leaders across the state are taking a cautious, flexible approach to the weeks ahead. Some will open fully online to start the semester, with plans to bring more students back to campus as conditions improve. Others will open with a mix of online and in-person learning, guided by the lessons learned over the past several months.

There will be widespread reentry testing for students. We’ll keep dorm occupancy limited; keep classrooms safely spaced out; and keep encouraging students to follow health guidelines, as the vast majority did in the fall. We’ll also make quick adjustments as conditions change, following the latest science, the advice of federal and state authorities and the guidance of our own experts in public health.

UNC System schools made it through the fall semester with a mix of online and in-person learning. Even campuses without in-person teaching kept open vital services, like dorms and counseling, to support students who needed them.

That flexible approach reflects the complicated reality of the communities we serve. Like public schools, we educate students from vastly different backgrounds and in very different life circumstances. Some students are able to manage online classes with reliable internet connections and a safe, quiet place to learn at home. For others, a dorm may be the most stable and supportive place they’ve ever lived, and campus services provide a lifeline that isn’t available anywhere else.

Closing a public university and waiting for the pandemic to end were never an option. Students’ lives can’t be put on indefinite hold, and we know from decades of research that interrupting college harms vulnerable students the most. Across the county, we’ve seen alarming data about declining enrollment among low-income, minority, and rural students — people whose lives will be permanently damaged by the loss of educational opportunity.

Our state can be rightly proud that we’ve kept faith with this generation of students, welcoming record enrollment last fall and doing extraordinary work to keep students on track. From professors to counselors to building staff, the public servants who work in our universities have shown up for students through the toughest academic year I hope we’ll ever see.

The students themselves have leaned into the effort. One young woman on last month’s Zoom call told me about serving as a student health ambassador, reaching out to her classmates to share safety guidance and encouraging them to stay motivated. She said it was the most satisfying experience of her college career, and gave her a profound appreciation for the hope and determination of her fellow students.

At the dawn of 2021, we have plenty of reason to hope. We can see the promise of better days ahead in the images of health care workers and fellow citizens rolling up their sleeves to receive life-saving vaccines. We can see it in the persistence of so many students to keep learning through challenging times, so they’ll be ready to build a better future.

Peter Hans is president of the University of North Carolina System.

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