Walking through the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s campus, some things feel like a normal fall semester, with familiar sights like student volunteers running a voter registration drive.
Other things look very different.
Chancellor’s Walk is a long corridor that runs between classroom buildings at UNC Wilmington. This week, just a handful of students walk — or ride their skateboards or beach cruisers — down this wide sidewalk. That’s where junior James Houghton is registering voters.
“It’s eerie to see Chancellor’s like this,” Houghton said. “Usually it’s wall to wall, the centerpiece is all full of people walking around.”
The campus has “de-densified,” with many students now taking classes online.
Despite having fewer students strolling on campus or sitting in lecture halls, the university has reported more than 250 positive COVID-19 cases since the semester began four weeks ago, and cases have been rising in recent weeks.
UNC Wilmington isn’t experiencing the worst case scenario — but it’s not the best case either.
By comparison, some large universities in the South, including East Carolina University and UNC-Chapel Hill, have each reported more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19. Following a rapid rise in cases, those campuses then sent their undergraduate students home.
UNC Wilmington is taking a smaller step this week to curb outbreaks.
The university is asking for half of its students living on campus in double rooms to move to single rooms or go home and finish classes online. And freshman roommates are supposed to decide between the two of them who will leave, or they’ll be randomly assigned.
“A lot of freshmen are freaking out. It’s kind of like 'The Hunger Games,'” Houghton said. “The roommates are pretty much having to fight over who leaves and who stays.”
The university declined a WUNC request to interview a high-ranking administrator for this story.
Resident Assistants Feel Overwhelmed
This sudden policy change, on top of an already mixed up and uncertain semester, is stressing out resident assistants like Ann. She doesn't want her full name used because she fears repercussions from her supervisors in the Office of Housing and Residence Life.
“I’m beyond stressed, always scared and oftentimes just confused on what’s happening,” Ann said.
Like other RAs, she’s had to deliver news about the housing change to residents in her dormitory and enforce rules around the clock with students who are not always compliant.
She says this situation is driving resident assistants to the brink; sometimes they gather to vent or even cry together.
“It just feels like no one is hearing us,” Ann said.
Ann is disappointed by the lack of information she receives from administrators, and frustrated with their continued tone that everything is fine.
“We had a meeting on Monday and we were told that our cases were really good, or they were good because they aren't that bad,” Ann said.
Ann lives with the residents she serves. They come to her with questions often, at meetings and while passing by in the hallway. She doesn’t feel equipped with answers to what she considers basic questions about pandemic-related policies.
“I had a resident ask me, if their roommate were to be tested positive, would they have to go get tested as well?” Ann said. “I didn't know the answer. No one told me the answer to that.”
Resident assistants who oversee freshman dorms are now having to mediate disputes between students deciding who will move out and who will stay.
Student Reporter Says Classmates Are Playing A Waiting Game
William Becker is a reporter at the student newspaper The Seahawk, and has been covering the rise in COVID-19 cases. As a morning ritual, he checks the university’s online dashboard where new cases are reported.
“So every morning I check in, you know, there's at least like a 10 to 20 increase every day,” Becker said.
At this point, he personally knows students who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed, and so do many students.
Even after interviewing administrators for the newspaper, Becker says he doesn’t understand what the threshold is for sending students home.
“It’s just been kind of like a betting game [among students], ‘Oh we’re going to be online in two weeks, we’re going to be online in a month’,” Becker said.
Faculty Feel ‘Tired’ and 'On Edge'
The uncertainty on campus is affecting faculty too. Derrick Miller is a German professor and chair of his department. He says these days, above all, he and other faculty are feeling “tired.”
“This isn't the fall 2020 semester. This is the continuation of the spring 2020 semester,” Miller said.
Miller teaches one small class that meets in person, and the recent housing change is affecting his lesson plans. Soon after the policy was announced, about a third of his students emailed him to say they're now going home because the dorms are being thinned out.
“So now, instead of the lesson I was going to deliver today, I need to talk to the students who remain and say, ‘Okay, how are we going to cope with this?’”
Miller may move his in-person class all online. He wonders if a new spike in cases is just around the corner.
“We're in a beach town,” Miller said. “And so I do think there might be some cause for concern to see what the Labor Day holiday did for COVID cases in our community.”
This RA is Ready to Go Home
Ann, the resident assistant, says she feels exhausted too, but she’s not waiting around for the next spike. Her breaking point hit one day while she was doing homework, and she found herself suddenly crying from a buildup of stress. It surprised her.
“I had to realize and actually look within and say, ‘Oh, well I'm tired. I'm exhausted of everything I've been put through,’” Ann said.
She’s made plans to resign her position as an RA as soon as her family can pick her up. She has loved being a resident assistant, and says she will miss her job, her friends and her residents.
“It's not that I don't care. It's just that I'm tired and I'm sad a lot and I'm scared,” Ann said. “It sounds maybe babyish to say, I just want to go home to the comfort of my home. I want to go home.”
Many other students are watching and waiting, anticipating the day when they may be headed home too.