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East Carolina University student Blair Spivey, a recreation sciences major with a concentration in recreational therapy administration, works on her computer on campus.

A month into East Carolina University’s fall semester, concerns about classes being moved online have begun to spread due to multiple COVID-19 clusters being identified on campus but university officials remain hopeful for the year. 

Associate Dean of Students Lauren Thorn said in an email statement that the Office of the Dean of Students (DOS) has heard from students, faculty and family members who have expressed concern about the university’s decision to resume in-person classes. She said there are many viewpoints that represent a broad spectrum of opinions and the DOS works to respond and provide reassurance to each call or email that comes to the office. 

The DOS learned from last year and was able to put proactive steps into place to ensure that ECU would try and continue face-to-face instruction, Thorn said. One of the changes from the response in the fall 2020 semester, she said, is the use of a precision management approach rather than pivoting to virtual instruction for all classes. 

“ECU Contact Tracing is monitoring the number of positives (COVID-19 cases) in individual courses, reviewing them as needed and making recommendations for a one or two session virtual pause while students get tested, then return to face to face instruction,” Thorn said.

The university has made sure that there was adequate testing, quarantine and isolation space and other mitigating steps in place to handle the initial spike of cases when the semester began, Thorn said. 

As of Sept. 21, ECU is beginning to see a decrease in overall case numbers on campus, according to Thorn. She said additional COVID-19 testing opportunities are provided and increased compliance with masking and classroom protocols. 

“While some classes may have moved online permanently at the beginning of the year,” Thorn said. “We investigated those specifically and found that the majority were impacted by other factors (such as) classroom space, a change in faculty, etc.” 

Thorn said as of Sept. 22, over 90 courses were paused so far this semester as part of a temporary pausing program, with all of them back to regular instruction within one to two class sessions. 

Thorn said DOS understands that students are concerned about continuing to attend face-to-face classes amid an ongoing pandemic. She said students may have been reluctant to believe that ECU could make it over the surge of cases and anticipated a virtual pivot. 

“Many (students) have seen their own classes, organizations and residence halls affected by the initial increase of positive cases and heard rumors that we were going to pivot again,” Thorn said. “However, university administration and those involved in the daily decision making have reassured our campus many times that we plan to stay face-to-face and manage individual courses and situations accordingly.”

Javier Limon, sophomore political science and public health major, said this is his first year on ECU’s campus and is grateful to be back in a classroom setting, but he still remains cautious. 

Limon said his scholar research class was temporarily online for one week before moving back in person during the week of Sept. 13. He also said his midterm exam in his health 3000 class was moved online because it was difficult for students in his class to keep up with the lessons when people had to sit out due to COVID-19.  

“That (temporary pause policy) leaves us (students) an ability to come back instead of being sent home again. But at the same time, if there's a certain point where a lot of people are getting infected and hurt by this virus and potentially hurting others with it, I need for a longer period potentially,” Limon said.

Although he does not live in a residence hall, Limon said he has a bit of a concern about the COVID-19 clusters. He said he is also concerned about the vaccination rate at ECU - 63% as of Sept. 23 - when compared to the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill vaccination rate - 93% as of Sept. 23.  

Limon said he can see a point where ECU does decide to move classes fully online if a wrose variant were to occur that could cause an issue but the decision depends on the university officials.

There is so much that the university can do about COVID-19, Limon said, but ECU has to comply with the UNC System’s policies as well as its own. He said it’s ultimately up to students if classes will be moved online or not.

“So at some point, that responsibility is dawned on us as students, and the university is doing what they can to make sure that they can bring us back in person, let us have the actual college experience, while also keeping us safe,” Limon said. 

Chancellor Philip Rogers said ECU’s number one priority is the health and safety of students, faculty and staff on campus. He said he believed the university put the right mitigation strategies in place to manage through any COVID-19 surge that comes its way. 

One of the top goals as part of ECU’s planning process, Rogers said, is to maintain and sustain the in-person learning environment that has been “thriving” on campus since the start of the semester. He said ECU faculty, experts and leaders are doing everything in their power to keep students in the classroom as the semester continues. 

“I'm grateful to the students, to the faculty and to the staff for their committed efforts to follow in our (ECU) community expectations and guidelines,” Rogers said. “To pursuing vaccinations, to wearing their masks because those are the strategies that we have to follow that will continue to keep us here on this campus, engaging in in-person learning.”

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