UNCW looks toward spring semester and moving students safely onto campus amid Covid-19 [Free]

UNCW will require students moving into residence halls to produce a negative Covid-19 test three days ahead of move-in. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON—After completing the first semester of full-on pandemic protocols, University of North Carolina at Wilmington leaders now look toward the spring. Using the past few months of experience as a guidebook, the administration recently announced a number of measures designed to keep the campus presence alive, even as more classes will likely shift online because of Covid-19.

Re-entry testing is the highest-profile addition to UNCW’s spring semester procedures. Universities across the state have been advised by multiple authorities to institute the practice. It requires students moving into residence halls to produce negative Covid-19 test results three days prior to move-in, according to Katrin Wesner-Harts, a UNCW interim associate vice chancellor who is at the forefront of the university’s pandemic response. 

Related: Deep Dive: Emails show how UNCW leaders confronted pandemic challenges in semester’s pivotal early weeks


“I think from a prevention standpoint, we’re a little bit worried that people have this sense that, if we just have everyone get tested before they come to campus, that means everything’s great and everyone’s safe,” Wesner-Harts said. “Return testing is really about helping keep people who are positive to stay at home.”

The university will also implement a surveillance testing program, which will sample different sections of the UNCW community — both students and employees — on “Testing Tuesdays.” The university’s website says more details about the program will be announced in January. 

While universities seldom required re-entry testing prior to the fall semester, the idea has now become the consensus, and public universities throughout N.C. have similarly announced negative tests will be a requirement of moving into residence halls in January. 

Wesner-Harts said re-entry testing wasn’t part of the larger conversation in the country when schools started back last August. But with cases on the rise, “It definitely is now more of the norm in the industry,” she said.

Testing at the Student Health Center surged in November, with higher daily totals of Covid-19 tests coming in part from NCAA requirements regarding surveillance testing for basketball athletes and program members. Further, the health center’s operations have been bolstered by the presence of New Hanover County Public Health staff, who have been embedded in the facility for most of the semester. 

Public health was involved in UNCW’s September decision to convert double-occupancy living spaces for first-year students into single-occupancy rooms. A public records request for correspondences around this time period showed the New Hanover County health director met with UNCW senior leadership on Zoom multiple times around the announcement of the new policy; both parties have said the final decision was made by UNCW. 

That partnership continues, Wesner-Harts said. When New Hanover County acquired surplus Covid-19 tests through state authorities, the county obtained a contractor and UNCW provided the space for the testing site.

She added that hopefully UNCW can play a role in vaccine administration when the time comes. 

“We absolutely will do whatever we can to help the county,” she said. “I think that’s part of the conversations that are happening right now.”

UNCW made a concerted effort to keep its population connected with the college experience as cases rose in August and early September. The September de-densification policy, along with bolstering the mask requirements on campus, were efforts to adapt the script, but not send the student body home.

Further, UNCW revamped an existing partnership with the Wilmington Police Department, called “party patrol,” to collect information about its students who were cited for mass-gathering violations at off-campus events. A number of these students were warned, and others were routed through the university’s disciplinary system. The university also requested popular off-campus apartment complexes to report instances of large parties to the university. While some managers viewed the request as stretching the limits of their tenants’ privacy, at least one complied, according to a report from WECT. 

Wesner-Harts said her office will focus on promoting guidance and best practices as UNCW enters its third semester of largely virtual learning — a convention that some UNCW students became familiar with following Hurricane Florence. Her work involves finding ways to keep the student body connected in an era that naturally creates distance between college students.

“All of this is a layered approach,” she said. “When we look at prevention, There’s no one single silver bullet.”


Have tips, ideas or comments? Email Preston Lennon at preston@localdailymedia.com

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