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The 2020 cohort of the Youth Reporting Institute and their work.

UNC Students Reflect On Start Of Chaotic Fall Semester

COVID safety signs on the quad at UNC - Chapel Hill.
Erin Batten-Hicks
COVID safety signs on the quad at UNC - Chapel Hill.

Many students at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill are trying to focus through feelings of frustration over being asked to leave a week into the fall semester. Campus orders for students to evacuate came after a series of COVID-19 clusters were reported at the school.

Sophomore Erin Batten-Hicks reflects on what this experience has been like and what her options are now that UNC has ended in-person classes.

I moved into my dorm room just 16 days ago. This weekend, I moved out.

I spent the entire summer weighing the pros and cons of coming back to campus in the middle of a pandemic. In the end, it was my mom who eventually convinced me that I’d be happier being at UNC, in my own space. We’d spent months sitting across the kitchen table from one another on Zoom calls in the spring. She knew I really don’t do well with online classes. So I took her advice, and I started packing for my sophomore year at Carolina.

Among the boxes, I packed eight masks and a measly bottle of hand sanitizer.  My coworker Mackenzie Beatty moved in, too. And, she also brought a bunch of masks - one for every day of the week.

Mackenzie Beatty shows the face masks she prepared for the start of the fall semester.
Credit Erin Batten-Hicks / For WUNC
Mackenzie Beatty shows the face masks she prepared for the start of the fall semester.

"This is probably my favorite one, and I have two of these, and then I’ve got… this butterfly one, it’s very cute," Kenzie said. "It’s got butterflies and this one is really breathable, too."

Kenzie and I are taking this virus very seriously.

"I was scared to come back to campus and I didn't really know if I wanted to come back to campus," Kenzie said. "It was more of I'm bad at online classes. I can't do online classes.... I know I couldn't do that mentally. I couldn't do fully online classes, especially like being home and stuff. Not that home is bad, but, you know, parents?"

Yeah. Parents. Plus, our return to campus also meant having a job and being around friends — even just an occasional walk with a friend outside, wearing masks, 6-feet apart … that’d be worth it. And for a few days it felt...doable.

But things started changing fast. Almost immediately after moving in, two out of Kenzie’s three hybrid classes moved fully online. And we were both constantly worrying about COVID exposure, even before the alerts.

Cluster at Granville Towers.

Cluster at Sigma Nu fraternity.

Cluster at Hinton James residence hall.



A screengrab of Erin Batten-Hicks and Sam Minnick talking on the video-conferencing shoftware Zoom.
Credit Courtesy of Erin Batten-Hicks
A screengrab of Erin Batten-Hicks and Sam Minnick talking on the video-conferencing shoftware Zoom.

A week into classes, there were already 200 of COVID-19 at UNC. The emergency notifications kept coming, and I was freaking out. My friend Sam Minnick is a sophomore at Carolina, just like me.

"I think my initial reaction was, well, I expected that… definitely expected that," Minnick said. "It didn’t shock me as much because I was like I knew that would happen. Like I wasn’t even a little bit surprised. A little scared, but not surprised."

Sam and I work in UNC Student Stores cafe, which is in the Pit, the center of campus. Tour guides love to mention that if you stand in the Pit for 24 hours, you’re guaranteed to see every Tar Heel student. Every day, Sam and I saw big groups of freshmen sitting outside at tables, without wearing masks.

"Honestly, every time I have to go through the first floor I'm like, 'No, no, no, no, don't touch me. Don't touch me. Don't touch me'," Minnick said. "Step away like just trying to slide back like to clock in. I'm like sliding past customers and like, 'Don't touch me, please.'"

It didn’t take long until the university said we had to leave campus. Even if it’s my mom’s kitchen, at least I have somewhere I can go right now, which isn’t the case for a lot of kids who are still figuring out their Plan B. I’m not getting my hopes up any time soon about the next time it will be safe to actually get back to Carolina.

"I think at this point, I can't see a point in the future where everything's going to go back to normal," Minnick said. "I think a lot of people are thinking this is gonna be over soon. But I don't. I can't look, like, think ahead and feel like I can securely say this is gonna be over in the next year or two years. Like, I feel like this has become a normal."

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