Only a fraction of colleges have started their fall semester. As August and September progress and more institutions resume teaching, the academic term could see a wave of similar outbreaks and sharp pivots to online learning if students don’t adhere to rules and guidelines about masks and social distancing.

President Donald Trump, lawmakers and state governing boards have pressured universities to reopen for in-person lessons. Trump threatened colleges tax-exempt status and his administration changed the rules about international students’ coming to the U.S. if their colleges offered online-only courses.

At UNC, the chancellor and provost did not have the “full freedom” to decide whether or not to reopen their campus because “the [Board of Governors] told system universities they had to reopen and that individual university chancellors could not make those decisions independently,” Barbara K. Rimer, dean of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, wrote Monday.

With the growing number of infections among students and reports of off-campus behavior showing “drinking, no masks or distancing and crowds,” Rimer said the university should return to remote instruction.

The semester began Aug. 10, and students moved in about one week earlier. In all, more than 500 UNC students are in isolation or being quarantined on or off campus.

“After only one week of campus operations, with growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others), it is time for an off-ramp,” Rimer said. “We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.”

Heading into the fall term, colleges across the country looking to open for at least part-time in-person instruction were cautiously optimistic. Campus leadership touted reopening plans that included entry tests, setting social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines, creating safe conduct pledges they ensured their students would honor, and lowering the typical packing together of students in dorms and dining halls by inviting back a limited number of students.

Even with fewer students on campus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compared shared living in college, including dorms, to nursing or assisted living homes. Both living situations are ripe for person-to-person transmission of the virus and could lead to similar patterns of spread.

Starting Wednesday, all undergraduate in-person instruction at UNC will shift to remote learning, Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and Provost Robert A. Blouin wrote in a joint message. “As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation,” they wrote.

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