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What Will A Return To College Look Like This Fall? UNC System Schools Share Details

The Old Well and flowers on the campus of UNC- Chapel Hill.
Brian Batista
The Old Well and flowers on the UNC- Chapel Hill campus.

Universities in the UNC System are beginning to release early plans for how they might reopen their campuses to students and faculty in the fall.

At the May meeting of the UNC System Board of Governors, Interim System President Bill Roper doubled down on his message that university leaders are working hard to safely welcome back students in August.

“Please don't think we're treating this crisis casually,” Roper said. “I'm prepared to pound the table to make the point that we are aggressively on it.”

Roper has been meeting regularly with administrators from UNC System schools as they develop plans — and contingency plans — for fall semester. 

While many of the details are still in development, this week some public universities began offering a glimpse of what’s in store. 

Adjusted academic calendars

Several UNC System universities — including North Carolina A&T State University, NC State University, UNC Greensboro, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — have each announced they will adjust their academic calendars to start on August 10 and finish the fall semester at Thanksgiving break. To condense the semester, they are canceling their fall breaks. The August 10 start date is about a week early for both NC State and UNC Chapel Hill.

These universities cite advice from infectious disease experts who warn of the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in late fall or early winter.

Dorm rooms and dining halls

While a few private universities across the country, including Campbell University, are poised to widely offer single dorm rooms to residential students, the UNC System is prepared for residence halls to resume at typical capacity.

“The model doesn’t work very well if we don’t have students on campus,” said UNC System Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey, indicating that residence hall fees are crucial to university budgets.

UNC Chapel Hill has announced plans to keep its residence halls at near-normal capacity, generally housing two students per dorm room. The university intends to reserve space at one residence hall for students who have tested positive for COVID-19 and another for those who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. 

Certain dining halls at the university will be closed to anyone who does not have a meal plan, to reduce density. UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told reporters at a press conference Thursday the university will focus on sanitizing communal spaces, like lounges and restrooms, and promoting social distancing between students in residence halls.


East Carolina University announced Thursday it will be cutting four of its athletic programs and reducing its athletics budget due to a deficit exacerbated by the pandemic.

ECU will eliminate its men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams and its men’s and women’s tennis teams, while maintaining its other 16 athletic programs to comply with the NCAA’s minimum requirement for athletic offerings at schools of its size.

“This is one of the most agonizing decisions you can make as an athletics director,” said ECU Director of Athletics Jon Gilbert in a press release.   

Several other public universities have announced they will gradually phase in the return of their own athletic programs to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, with more details to come. 

Social distancing

UNC Chapel Hill has shared details of its social distancing measures in its reopening plan, called “Carolina’s Roadmap to Fall 2020.” The university will encourage community standards for handwashing, mask wearing and physical distancing. Corridors in buildings will be marked for one-way foot traffic.

To reduce class sizes, the university will stagger schedules and offer more night classes. Many professors will be expected to adapt their classes for a combination of in-person and remote learning. UNC Chapel Hill is also developing a “Carolina Away” program to adapt commonly required classes for high-quality online instruction to accommodate students who cannot be on campus.


UNC System leaders have often repeated that these plans are subject to change, based on the severity of the epidemic over time, the guidance of public health officials and advice from their own faculty who are experts in infectious diseases.  

Guskiewicz referred to the university’s “roadmap” as having many off-ramps, with flexibility to tighten safety measures if necessary.

“I assure you we will be ready for any set of circumstances that may prevail," said Roper. 


Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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