With another COVID-19 impacted semester underway, East Carolina University officials welcome back students, faculty and staff, while they hold high hopes for the spring semester during this unprecedented time.
Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson said various changes have been made in order to safely welcome students back to campus this semester.
Mitchelson said approximately 1,900 students have returned to the residence halls, all in single-occupancy residence hall rooms. He said 32% of undergraduate course offerings will be face-to-face.
“The density of online (classes) is more than we’d want, but in the presence of what we learned last fall, and in the presence of an ongoing community spread, it’s wise,” Mitchelson said. “I’m glad that we can have at least one-third of our offerings face-to-face.”
In addition to class adjustments, Mitchelson said two residence halls have been left vacant for COVID-19 isolation and quarantine spaces. He said at least three of the occupied residence halls have extra capacity for students to quarantine should they need more space.
Students who returned to Campus Living were required to have a negative COVID-19 test, according to Mitchelson. He said within a five day period, Student Health Services tested 950 students and only 15 tested positive.
“While we know that a proportion of students will return with exposure, or perhaps with the virus, and an infection, it’ll be a much smaller percentage than the general population,” Mitchelson said. “That’s a source of confidence for me.”
There will be an emphasis on compliance this semester, and students must follow campus rules and wear their masks, as well as adhere to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s orders, Mitchelson said.
In terms of on-campus transmission, Mitchelson said he feels classrooms and laboratories are set up safely in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said the main concern is off-campus transmission.
“We know we can handle this, and I think we’re very well-planned,” Mitchelson said. “We’re going to welcome back students to a campus that’s (much more organized), but our expectations will be a little higher on the compliance side.”
Mitchelson said he encourages students to stay engaged and continue to focus on their academics as they navigate this unusual semester. He said his hope is to have an in-person commencement this spring, so he urges students to keep that in mind and make good choices.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy said she looks forward to students being back on-campus and an atmosphere of excitement. She said students who live on-campus will be required to participate in mass surveillance COVID-19 saliva testing during the first week of February.
“After that, every week 25% of the students in the residence halls will be called in for saliva testing,” Hardy said.
The saliva testing is open to every ECU student, whether they live on or off-campus, according to Hardy. She said she encourages every student to do the saliva testing because it is free and non-invasive.
Hardy said there will be less emphasis on COVID-19 warnings and education this semester, and more emphasis on enforcement.
“If students are not complying, then whatever sanction or consequence that follows that noncompliance will be put in place,” Hardy said. “This could mean that if someone was having a large gathering that exceeds the (protocol), that they may get a citation potentially from ECU Police Department and/or sanctioning from the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.”
Hardy said ECU’s enrollment for the spring has increased slightly, and the retention rate from fall 2020 to spring 2021 has not decreased. She said this is great news.
Student Government Association (SGA) President Tucker Robbins said in an email statement that his hope for this spring would be to ensure a safe and sustainable semester.
“The pivot to remote learning last fall wasn’t fun and a major disruption to many students,” Robbins said. “My hope is that we can prevent that from happening this spring. I believe we have the infrastructure in place to be successful, (and) my hope is that we can execute the plans safely and effectively.”
Robbins said he thinks the university learned many lessons from last semester and has used them to correct how things are to be handled now.
A challenge ECU may face this semester will be the potential off-campus transmission of COVID-19, Robbins said, so he encourages students to be mindful about gatherings both on and off-campus.
“Know that you are not alone in your struggles and the university has resources in place to help you navigate this spring semester,” Robbins said. “I also encourage students to communicate with their professors, especially for online courses. Effective communication between the student and the professor will be instrumental to your academic success in the virtual world we find ourselves in.”
Robbins said SGA and other student leaders should play a huge role to set the example to members of the student body on how they can successfully get through the spring semester safely.
He said SGA and Campus Recreation and Wellness just recently partnered with BetterYou, a digital coach that rewards students for focusing on what is important to them. To sign up, Robbins said students can go to the BetterYou website, and the first 800 to do so will get an Amazon gift card.
“During these unprecedented times, finding time and energy to focus on the things that mean the most to you can be difficult,” Robbins said. “Your well-being is important to us and we want to see you be successful.”