By Zach Engler
In the fall, in-person classes were cancelled just one week into the semester after multiple COVID-19 cases on campus. With the start of this semester, UNC hoped students had learned their lesson.
However, hundreds flooded Franklin Street after UNC’s basketball team defeated Duke. They ignored messages from university leaders encouraging them to celebrate at home just two days before in-person classes were set to begin. The celebration raised questions about the university’s COVID policies, students’ self-discipline, and privilege.
Zach Engler has more.
ZACH ENGLER: As the final buzzer rang out on Saturday night to end Carolina’s 4-point victory at arch-rival Duke, hundreds of UNC students descended onto Franklin Street to celebrate.
(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS SCREAMING ON FRANKLIN STREET)
ENGLER: Rushing Franklin Street after beating Duke has been a Tar Heel tradition for generations. But this year, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, university officials had urged students to celebrate at home instead.
This proved to be in vain. This student, who asked to remain anonymous because he is afraid of punishment, described his mindset as he ran to join to crowd:
ANONYMOUS MALE: I mean there was kind of a lengthy-not necessarily lengthy but a pretty serious debate amongst my friends and I who directly following the game began on that path towards Franklin Street but then had second thoughts…but we eventually made the decision to go ahead and go.
ENGLER: Once he got to Franklin Street, he felt what he describes as an “inherent rush of excitement.”
ANONYMOUS MALE: It was exactly like any other year that we’ve beaten Duke. You start to hear a lot of horns honking all across town. There just seemed to be a heightened level of noise. And, you know, as we were leaving our respective game watching place we start to see other people, you know everybody’s just rushing towards the same area, lots of running. You’re out of breath obviously ‘cause you’re excited. Things just get louder and there’s just an air of excitement.
ENGLER: The University was quick to condemn the celebration. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz put out a statement, promising to investigate and pursue consequences. UNC junior Chloe Yopp was upset when she saw the celebration.
CHLOE YOPP: We were just so disappointed, I guess it just put us in kind of a bad mood, like, we were super excited about the win. And then we saw that and just knew that it would kind of take the focus away from the win, and put it on this, like gathering of students.
ENGLER: The university was scheduled to begin in-person instruction for a number of courses on the Monday following the game. In the wake of a possible “super spreader” event that left the student affairs office with over 300 student-conduct reports, many students and faculty were less confident returning to the classroom. Professor Joe Czabovsky (Suh-bov-ski) of the School of Journalism and Media says he still feels safe, but he isn’t happy with the students who celebrated.
JOE CZABOVSKY: I think the biggest emotion is that you just have to say that it’s frustrating for, you know, all of the students that were excited to come back to campus and did everything right, and did everything that they were supposed to.
ENGLER: Faculty Chairwoman Mimi Chapman said in an email to fellow faculty members that she and her colleagues believe in the science and have confidence in the mitigation measures within classrooms. But they are worried after the events of the weekend. She also wrote that, quote “The visuals of a generally white crowd of students rushing Franklin Street was the definition of white privilege,” end quote. She said their actions will have an impact on community members who are Black, Indigionous, and People of Color.
(SOUNDBITE: STUDENTS RUSHING FRANKLIN STREET)
ENLER: But the anonymous student who was part of the crowd says he has no regrets.
ANONYMOUS MALE: The risk is fairly low given that my friends and I, as well as I would argue 99% of those who also rushed Franklin found ourselves in a demographic that was just simply not really at risk. It was really awesome to do things like that again. You know it’s been so long, we’ve been separated for so long. You know, in the heat of the moment like that it was almost surreal to like, be back on Franklin Street and to see a couch on fire in the middle of the street. You know it just puts you back into like, normalcy, and it was really awesome.
ENGLER: To ease hesitation about returning to the classroom only two days after the rush of Franklin Street, the university gave professors the choice to keep their classes remote for one more week, and return to the classroom on Wednesday the 17th. It won’t be clear for several more days whether any COVID-19 cases can be traced back to Franklin Street.
In Chapel Hill, I’m Zach Engler.