Most UNC-Chapel Hill students will submit negative COVID-19 test results to the university before returning to campus for the spring semester, and they’ll get tested weekly.
But thousands of graduate students are an exception to that rule.
UNC is prioritizing testing among undergraduate students because that’s where the majority of COVID-19 cases spread this fall and it’s the best use of their resources, according to Dr. Amir Barzin, an assistant professor at UNC Medical School in charge of the testing program. He’s also the Incident Commander for UNC Health’s Respiratory Diagnostic Center.
Graduate and professional students are not required to do “prior to arrival” COVID-19 testing, even if they are taking or teaching in-person classes on campus. However, graduate and professional students who regularly access campus must participate in weekly asymptomatic testing throughout the spring semester.
For those living in Chapel Hill or Carrboro and not going to campus, weekly asymptomatic testing is voluntary.
And students in programs with daily symptom checks, like health professions programs, don’t need to do any COVID-19 testing.
Barzin made clear that while testing is not required for everyone, it is available for any student, faculty or staff member on campus for free.
Limited COVID cases among graduate students
Barzin said they are making data-driven decisions for their new, more robust testing program this spring and are closely monitoring the rising cases and hospitalizations around North Carolina.
“You really focus on the now, but try to project for the future in a world that’s a little bit hard to project for,” Barzin said. “We learn from the lessons that we have had.”
In the fall, UNC moved its undergraduate classes online and closed dorms because of spikes in coronavirus cases. But a significant number of graduate students stayed working and learning on campus. Some moved online for classes and others continued their research in labs to fulfill graduation requirements.
Graduate students, particularly those in the health professions, had the closest experience to what they would’ve had in any other year, Barzin said. There was still some risk on campus, but they were able to take their courses without any interruptions.
Students completed daily symptom checks, wore masks and distanced as they could. The spread among those graduate students was “almost negligible,” Barzin said. Other universities across the country that UNC has consulted also report a low number of cases among graduate students in the fall, he said.
“When you have a really high-quality practice that has been shown to be effective, sometimes adding elements to it doesn’t necessarily make it more effective,” Barzin said.
The university has said there was little to no transmission of the virus in classrooms or academic facilities among faculty, staff and students. Most of the cases spread through off campus gatherings or in congregate living spaces like dorms, which house mostly undergraduates.
This spring, about 10,500 graduate students are enrolled at UNC. About 1,000 will be coming to campus for classes and another 1,500 have the option of being on campus for a class, according to the university.
N.C. State University is also ramping up its testing efforts as it welcomes students back to campus this spring. At NCSU, all graduate students who are taking face-to-face classes or are teaching face-to-face classes or conducting research in labs are required to get tested before the semester. Graduate students enrolled in face-to-face classes and those teaching in-person will also participate in weekly surveillance testing.
Graduate students encourage more testing
Some graduate students in Chapel Hill would like to see required testing.
“This policy is questionable in the face of rising COVID-19 cases locally and nationally,” UNC graduate student Maian Adams said in an email. She’s a JD/MBA candidate in the UNC School of Law and Kenan-Flagler Business School and a leader in the Graduate and Professional Student Federation.
Adams said it is irresponsible to bring graduate students back to campus without requiring an initial negative COVID-19 test or weekly testing for all students and employees.
“Although it’s reported that transmission in the classroom is low, it’s not impossible, and many of our graduate students, faculty, and staff have families that they go home to at the end of the day,” Adams said. “If there is even a remote possibility of them catching the virus and unknowingly bringing it home to their families, it is an unnecessary risk, one that can be mitigated by requiring mandatory testing.”
Some people who have COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, so graduate students self-monitoring their symptoms is a “moot point” because they could spread it without knowing, she said.
Ryan Collins, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, has also been involved in the conversations with university and community leaders about UNC’s spring plans.
Collins said he understands the decision based on the data from the fall and graduate students’ circumstances. Some graduate students might prefer required testing, but others appreciate their situation being treated differently than undergrads, he said. Graduate students aren’t typically living in congregate housing and don’t need to come to campus that often.
“For some people, it would’ve been more of an inconvenience than a benefit,” Collins said.
Some students, including Collin,s who’s a law school student, have already started spring courses and others never left Chapel Hill. Since programs have different start dates, he said it’s harder to define the parameters for mass re-entry testing.
Cost of COVID-19 testing
Collins said returning to campus is a divisive issue and there has always been a contingent of graduate students who don’t want the campus to be open. Some have their own concerns as teaching assistants in classrooms and others are worried about faculty, housekeepers and other campus workers.
Collins said that’s why it’s important to prioritize testing for people who are at a greater risk and make testing available for anyone who wants it.
“That optional weekly testing is available,” Collins said. “We’re encouraging people to take advantage of that.”
UNC has three testing sites around campus at the Frank Porter Graham Student Union, CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio on Franklin Street and the UNC Rams Head Recreation Center.
The PCR tests are free for students and employees, but they each cost about $40 for the university. The total cost will depend on the number of tests administered, but UNC will likely spend millions of dollars as thousands of students are returning to campus who will be getting tested at least once or twice a week.
The university received grant funding to help offset that cost.
UNC also set up its own test processing lab for the spring 2021 semester, which reduces the cost and gives out test results within 48 hours.