Wednesday, June 19, 2024

UNCW inches back toward familiar college experience after a year of Covid-19

Remnants of a socially distanced-marked lawn remain outside the university union, where Adirondack chairs were placed in white circles, personal bubbles, during the height of the pandemic. UNCW lifted its mask mandate Wednesday. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — Five days after Gov. Roy Cooper lifted the mask mandate for most settings, UNCW announced Wednesday it would follow suit and significantly curtail Covid-19 restrictions.

The university just began its first round of summer classes — a period that even before the pandemic was dominated by online instruction — and the campus is sparsely populated. But for fall 2021, university leaders have planned for months to host a traditional semester; the latest easing of Covid-19 directives adds momentum.

Restrictions that marked the campus vibe last fall are now falling away: Students in dorms can now invite guests into buildings; off-campus students will be able to rent campus space again; and indoor mask requirements are no longer active. 

“When we were talking about fall, the goal was to get to as close to fall 2019 as we could,” said Katrin Wesner-Harts, UNCW’s top health official. “We anticipated full occupancy in classrooms, full occupancy in the residence halls, dining experiences looking like they did before.”

Summertime operations, Wesner-Harts said, will not be greatly affected since plans already had been set in stone. Six percent of summer classes will be in-person. Orientation will proceed as originally drawn up, with online components over the summer and an in-person congregation in August.

College-aged citizens caught heat from health officials one month ago, when New Hanover County Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko called out young people during a presentation to the board of commissioners on the Covid-19 response. 

“We are seeing our young people serve as superspreaders at this time,” Fayko said. “And so even on the UNCW campus, we have 36 positive cases off campus, and 28 positive on campus. And that’s covering the past 14 days.”

As of this week, only three UNCW students have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the last 14 days. The university-operated vaccine clinic inoculates around five to 10 walk-ins per day when active, Wesner-Harts said. The university has batches of the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine that need to be used before expiration in the latter half of June. 

Unvaccinated students are still subject to regular Covid-19 tests, and the university has begun collecting data on the vaccination status of its population. Students have been asked to send a photo of their CDC vaccination card to the university, Wesner-Harts said; though, vaccinations will not be a prerequisite for attending on-campus classes.

Rosemary Colen, a UNCW student taking summer classes, said she thought the move to drop the mask mandate was premature.

“It doesn’t really make sense because people who don’t want to get vaccinated, we can’t double check, and they also are not going to wear a mask,” Colen said. 

“If we aren’t going to have a requirement for vaccine, then I believe that we should still be mask-wearing.”

Another UNCW student, a rising senior, said she was gleeful for her younger counterparts upon hearing the news that masks were no longer a must-wear. First-year students who entered UNCW in August 2020 had an atypical semester, the student said. 

From this point forward, masks are only mandatory on campus at outpatient healthcare facilities, K-12 schools operated by the university (D.C. Virgo and Isaac Bear Early College High School), youth camps, and in vehicles like WAVE buses and shuttles. 

“Our ability to plan for a more traditional fall, or familiar fall, is getting more real every day,” Wesner-Harts said.

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