WILMINGTON — Hundreds of students waited outside the UNCW Burney Center Tuesday, wrapped in a line that spanned multiple blocks. They were all on standby for a Covid-19 rapid test that would allow them to move into residence halls and attend on-campus classes.
In a parking lot on the edge of campus, other students with negative Covid-19 test results already in tow were ferried through a checkpoint. After showing printed test results to staff, the students were given a green wristband to wear until Jan. 22 that verifies they tested negative for the virus.
Tuesday was the final round of UNCW’s spring move-in operations. Friday and Saturday, the campus was similarly humming as students from across the state and country returned to Wilmington for the second full semester of college during the Covid-19 pandemic. In all, around 3,480 students will live on campus this semester, equating to an occupancy rate just below 73%, according to the university.
The dense lines outside the Burney Center and the parking lot test-checking station represented new additions to the university’s fight against Covid-19. “Re-entry testing,” as it’s called, was largely absent from universities during the fall semester but is now commonplace across North Carolina.
First year student Hannah Winkel said she opted to get tested before arriving on campus.
“I’m glad I did because I showed up and saw that line,” she said.
Katrin Wesner-Harts helms UNCW’s pandemic response. Currently the interim associate vice chancellor of student affairs, she has been affiliated with the university since at least 2007. She earned a doctorate of education at UNCW in 2016, and now broadly oversees different factions of the UNCW health realm, like the student health center, university testing services and the counseling center. Her dissertation was titled “Faculty Readiness for Emergency Response: A Case Study.”
In a previous interview, Wesner-Harts predicted how spring semester operations might be adapted from fall semester protocols. The nuts and bolts haven’t changed, she said, and advocating on behalf of public health guidance — mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing — is still at the forefront of UNCW’s strategy.
Bags of personal protective equipment, including masks and hand sanitizer, were distributed to incoming students living on campus.
“I think we recognize that we spent a lot of time on mechanics,” Wesner-Harts said. “And they were all critically important, but the piece that we need to really focus on for spring is the personal piece.”
While UNCW students were first familiarized with lengthy periods of online instruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Wesner-Harts acknowledged the seemingly never-ending shakeups to normal life brought on by the pandemic can strain the student body.
“I think it’s one thing when we say, ‘We’re going to ask you to do this and it’s for a short amount of time,’” she said. “But here we are, starting another semester, and we’re still asking you to do those things.”
She added: “We’re asking people to do a lot. We disrupted every routine you had. And we still don’t see an end to that.”
A ‘Clean Slate’
The Seahawk Quad is a developing area of campus that includes two residence halls, Sandpiper and Pelican, which opened in August 2020. Two more dorms, Terrapin and Loggerhead, are expected to house students starting next fall. Graham-Hewlett and Galloway complete the perimeter.
Early on last semester, the area was a hotbed for Covid-19 outbreaks. The university’s first reported clusters — groups of five-or-more Covid-19 cases linked by proximity and time — were located in Pelican and Graham-Hewlett Hall, both of which border the Seahawk Quad. A cluster in Sandpiper followed three days later.
On Tuesday the quad was mostly silent. Scattered groups of students sat and walked together on the grass, and a security officer monitored parking. While he wasn’t involved in facilitating the fall semester move-in, the security officer said from what he had heard, this go-round was more smooth than last semester’s.
“I heard last semester was a little iffy,” he said. “Pretty busy.”
First-year student Reagan Peace said she was looking forward to having more in-person classes than she did last semester, and hoped that conditions on campus would not deteriorate to the point that major changes have to be made.
Last semester, after Covid-19 cases on campus spiked in early September, UNCW leaders collaborated with New Hanover County Public Health officials to brainstorm a path forward. After a series of Zoom calls between the two entities, UNCW announced it had come up with a plan to “de-densify” first-year residence halls, which allowed the university to carry out the semester without shuttering the campus.
First-year students living together in a double-occupancy room split up in September, after a university decree. In most cases, one student would remain in the dorm, while the other was transferred to an on-campus room elsewhere or went to live with their parents. Students were not allowed to transition to an off-campus residence if it wasn’t with their parent or guardian.
“We had to move home and it was really rough,” said first-year student Leah Pyle. “Nothing was really clear.”
Pyle and her friends chatted in front of Galloway Hall, the university’s oldest dormitory that was converted into a quarantine and isolation space in the fall. When students tested positive for Covid-19 on campus, or indicated they were likely exposed to someone who was Covid-positive, they often waited out their quarantine period in Galloway.
Pyle said she worried that because everyone was wearing their green wristband, which indicated they had tested negative for Covid-19, people might think the risk for Covid-19 transmission was miniscule.
She added there was a sense of nervousness among her friends that something like de-densification might occur this semester, despite the added precautions of the re-entry process this semester.
“I think a lot of people don’t trust that it won’t happen again,” she said.
Wesner-Harts, the UNCW administrator, also told Port City Daily there is a sense re-entry testing could lead to overconfidence.
“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,” she said. “Remember that a test is a moment in time.”
David Howard, assistant health director for New Hanover County, said in a previous interview that re-entry testing allows communities and campuses a “relatively clean slate” to begin the semester.
“And going from there,” Howard added, “their plan is to continue the greatest amount of distancing in terms of living arrangements, classroom arrangements, etcetera, to maintain the lowest opportunity for transmission as possible,
To continue the momentum, UNCW will conduct “surveillance testing,” which the university describes as targeted testing surges for specific segments of the campus population. Though details of the program are still unclear, it could be intertwined with an existing program that seeks to detect potential Covid-19 hotspots by accumulating data from sewage.
According to a university spokesperson, 132 Covid-19 tests were administered on Saturday. The university’s Covid-19 dashboard indicates four beds in Galloway Hall are currently in-use for students requiring quarantine or isolation.
On Hamilton Drive, between the tennis courts and recreational fields, students make their way through campus. Some head to the student center for their textbooks, or to the university union for food. Many others stake their claim to a spot in line outside the nearby Burney Center.
Two men in a gray sedan drive down the road. To students wearing masks on the sidewalk, they yell through the window, “Take it off. It’s cool.” Then they drive on.
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