College seniors across the University of North Carolina System's 16 universities should expect their spring graduation ceremonies to be delayed, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper announced Friday.
"I know and understand that this will disappoint our students and their families who have worked so hard toward this goal for so many years," Roper said. "But the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff must be our top priority."
UNC Chapel Hill soon after announced it will begin planning postponement of its spring commencement, by taking a survey of graduating students to crowdsource input on how to best reschedule the celebrations.
Students will still receive degrees, as classes continue online, but it will be up to each university to rearrange their traditional cap and gown ceremonies. Roper said each university's plan could look different.
Meanwhile, UNC System officials have many details to hammer out in the weeks ahead as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many questions remain. How much will the pandemic financially impact the university system? How will universities refund students' room and board fees? And how can the UNC system - and the state - pay for these disruptions?
Members of the UNC System Board of Governors brought these questions to their March meeting, which met by conference call this week.
The full board meeting began Friday with a question and answer session with UNC Health epidemiologist David Weber, who explained it could be 8 to 20 weeks before public gatherings can resume.
"To do the calculation, I think you're talking about mid-summer, we might be back to a different way of doing things?" Roper said. "Back to normal?"
Weber confirmed that best estimations predict social distancing measures may need to remain in effect until some time between May and August. That time will allow North Carolinians to wait out the rise and fall of the COVID-19 outbreak, with an additional cushion to prevent a second spike in cases.
Roper said the UNC System will likely begin making decisions next week about how to refund room and board fees, and may consider moving grades to a pass-or-fail system.
As for financial needs, the UNC Board of Governors budget and finance committee will table its 2020 state budget requests written before the pandemic, and will craft a specific list of needs for a relief package to deal with the wide-reaching effects of the coronavirus outbreak.