UNCW welcomes students to campus — and hopes to keep them there

UNCW operations were scuffed last semester when dorms were thinned out in response to rising Covid-19 cases. This semester, university leaders hope a robust re-entry testing program will allow for consistency as students flock back to campus. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — Students from N.C. and elsewhere will converge on UNCW this weekend as the university ramps up for its spring semester, the second time college students in Wilmington will return to campus amid the pandemic. 

New precautions will be in place that were nonexistent in the fall, most notably, re-entry testing, which asks all students enrolled in on-campus classes to present a negative Covid-19 test after arriving. Students who don’t show up with a negative test on paper will be given a rapid test onsite. 

Related: UNCW updates students, requires negative Covid-19 test as spring semester approaches


“The goal is, with most universities across the country using a similar strategy, to basically start off with a relatively clean slate for the community, especially the student population in the community,” said David Howard, the assistant director of New Hanover County Public Health. 

The health department closely eyed UNCW last fall, especially as the university’s case count spiked in early September. After Zoom calls with local health officials, the university emerged mid-September with a game-changing operational move, termed “de-densification“: all first-year double occupancy dorm rooms were converted into singles. 

It was mostly up to the students themselves to work out the logistics of who would stay and who would go, while facilitating the order was a burden largely handled by resident advisors

“Nobody wants to go through de-densification again less than myself,” said UNCW Housing and Residence Life Director Peter Groenendyk. “That is something we want to avoid. It was very difficult for our students. It was very difficult for our staff, and it was disruptive. And it’s not what we wanted to do. But we felt at that time it’s what we needed to do.”

Groenendyk said UNCW opened in the fall with around 780 double-occupancy rooms. This semester fewer than 390 rooms will be double-occupancy. About 3,480 students will be arriving on campus for the spring semester.

Prior to the policy rollout, university leaders reviewed a draft announcement in an email chain. Provost James Winebrake indicated one sentence read “as a kind of prisoner’s dilemma outcome”: “[I]f neither student wants to move, then they may both be asked to move home, and both will receive pro-rated refunds.”

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

Alongside the re-entry testing program, UNCW will conduct “surveillance testing,” which will be targeted testing surges for specific populations. The university has not released many details of the program, but Groenendyk said it could be intertwined with an existing strategy of detecting Covid-19 outbreaks through sewage

Housing revenue is critical for maintaining university operations, Groenendyk said.  Housing is university’s largest auxiliary; its funds contribute to scholarships and staffing campus positions.

“We’ve certainly seen a financial impact because of Covid,” Groenendyk said. “But as an auxiliary, we run off of the rent that we collect. We think that rent for this upcoming fiscal year should be more than $30 million.”

After de-densification, the university reached out to students who would be taking classes remotely for the remainder of the year. Those students were told that in order to be released housing contracts, they would need to fulfill the one-year on-campus housing requirement in 2021-2022, and commit to living only with their parents or guardians for the 2020-2021 year. 

“Students, we know, do better academically and persist at higher rates when they live on campus, for at least one year,” Groenendyk said. “I don’t know that it’s an imposition more than it was an opportunity for them.”

As for those students who arrive on campus without documentation of negative test results, then test positive, they will be given the option to either go home or quarantine in Galloway Hall, the university’s oldest dorm that has been repurposed as a quarantine and isolation space

“We actually are going to staff the building starting [Friday] in anticipation that this is going to occur,” Groenendyk said. 

Occupancy in the quarantine dorm approached 50% in September, but subsequently fell and hovered around 10% for the rest of the semester. 

Last semester, like at other universities, UNCW resident advisors were tasked with unprecedented responsibility. Not only did the typical duties of hallway management and community building still apply, but other jobs were added, like policing social-distancing violations — and in UNCW’s case, assisting the move-out process for first years subject to de-densification. 

“We’re going to ask that you participate in the process of helping students to figure out which one is willing to move and which student is going to go home,” Groenendyk told resident advisors during a fall meeting, a recording of which was obtained by Port City Daily. “We recognize there is probably going to be some negotiation that occurs, and we will continue to de-densify the rooms until we run out of space.” 

Reflecting on how resident advisors were previously deployed, Groenendyk said, “They’re leaned on a lot, and I think across the country this past fall, we asked them to be not just extraordinary, but exceptional.” 

“And it was hard, and some students were prepared to do it, and some students had difficulty doing it. And I recognize that,” he added.

With vaccines for students on the horizon, and bolstered safety measures to ease the re-entry process, Groenendyk is cautiously optimistic for the upcoming semester. The intangibles, he said, like good decision-making and individual adherence to health protocols, can make the difference. 

“We’ve learned a lot since we started, but we know that this spring semester is going to be difficult again,” he said. “I think what we have though is hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We can actually see it, we’re getting there, but it still means the next few months will be hard.”


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