North Carolina public universities aim for fall 2020 restart

Published 6:45 pm Wednesday, April 29, 2020

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By JONATHAN DREW, Associated Press

The leader of North Carolina’s public university system — a former top government health official — said Wednesday that he plans to reopen campuses in the fall with precautions against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, a county near Charlotte issued a symbolic order saying businesses there are ready to reopen, while acknowledging its residents are still subject to the governor’s stay-home order meant to fight the virus outbreak.

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Dr. Bill Roper, the interim president of the University of North Carolina System, issued an announcement that he expects to reopen classrooms across the system’s 17 public campuses for the fall semester, though with some limitations or modifications.

“I expect to reopen our campuses for the Fall 2020 Semester and look forward to welcoming our faculty and students back to their classrooms and labs this fall,” Roper said, adding that campuses “will not be the ‘normal’ we were all used to prior to COVID-19.”

Roper, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the reopenings will be contingent on continued testing and monitoring of virus trends.

He said he was working with university chancellors on the specifics, which could include staggered academic calendars or reducing density of campus housing. Roper indicated that the system, which enrolls approximately 250,000 students statewide, would work to accommodate students and faculty with health conditions who aren’t comfortable returning to the classroom.

“Our chancellors will have flexibility to determine what local steps they need to take to protect all students, staff and faculty, especially high-risk populations, both on campus and off,” Roper said.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-home order remains in effect through May 8 and will be followed by a multi-phased plan to ease restrictions on businesses.

In opposition to Cooper’s plan, the Gaston County Commission issued a “reopening order” saying businesses there are ready to restart, even though no such reopenings can outpace the governor’s plan. The document makes clear that county businesses and residents must still obey Cooper’s order. The county’s gesture was symbolically taking effect Wednesday.

“Why punish us for being successful in flattening the curve when a strict Stay at Home order no longer makes sense for our county?” county commission Chairman Tracy Philbeck said in a statement.

A state tally shows Gaston County has had about 140 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and three deaths. The county of about 224,000 people lies west of Charlotte along the South Carolina state line.

A spokesman for Cooper, Ford Porter, issued a statement emphasizing that the local order acknowledges that residents must continue to follow the statewide restrictions.

“This order’s only effect is to create confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous,” Porter said. “The Gaston County order itself says that the statewide Stay At Home order remains in effect, and state leaders urge people to continue following it.”

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health and human services secretary, also condemned Gaston County’s move during a media briefing.

“You know, we’re in a crisis, and I think confusion is really, really damaging during a crisis,” she said.

As of Wednesday, state health officials reported nearly 10,000 confirmed cases statewide including about 550 hospitalizations. About 350 people have died.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness or even death.



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