ASHEVILLE – Students and parents want to come back. Faculty and staff want to get back to work. And Western North Carolina’s economy needs it.
So with pages and pages of health procedures in place to respond to any number of potential scenarios, “We believe we can do this,” UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy J. Cable says in the accompanying video from a Zoom interview.
Cable outlines how the semester will begin early – Aug. 10 – and end early – Nov. 20. The semester will be broken into two 7-1/2-week blocks.
Cable jokes that some parents of traditional college-age are begging for the school to reopen. But she also notes that faculty who don’t feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction can ask to teach online.
She points out that UNCA is an important driver in the Western North Carolina economy. “We can be an important reboot, not just economically, but in the vitality of the region,” she says.
“We’re excited. We’re intentional about it. And we will only open if we can ensure those best protocols health-wise.”
Despite the pandemic shutdown, Cable and her staff have held virtual meetings with UNCA parents – especially those of first-year students.
She outlines how the university will provide high-quality masks for students, faculty and staff, how it is prepared to offer more single rooms, and even how UNC Asheville doesn’t have large, gang-style bathrooms.
She discusses how the university is prepared to provide online instruction and food delivery for students who require quarantine or isolation, and how it’s made arrangements with the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) and Mission Hospital if they need medical attention.
“I do believe that higher education can be resilient in its service to the region, to the state, but most of all to our students and our employees,” she says.
Some are skeptical that college students will abide by social distancing and other safe practices during the coronavirus pandemic. But Cable notes that UNC Asheville, with just 3,500 students, has a strong tradition of community.
“We already have some sense that we function as a community caring about each other,” she says, noting efforts to dispel racism and bigotry.
A team of faculty, staff, students, parents and community leaders has worked on a set of community standards,1 she says, that will be shared with the entire community along with a message:
“If you choose to come back to campus for in-person instruction this semester, we would ask you to come back only if you will comply with these standards.”
Peers will also play a part, she says – student ambassadors will even be checking their classmates’ temperatures in high-traffic areas like libraries.
Out of crisis, opportunities
Despite the hardships of the pandemic, Cable says, there are also opportunities.
“I believe firmly that we will be able to re-emerge as a resilient institution of vital importance to the American fabric,” she says.
Institutions will see long-lasting effects, she says – some positive, some negative. Some will become more efficient.
Though some characterize higher education as slow to change, the near-instantaneous shift online “showed to ourselves that we actually are innovative, creative, student-centered,” Cable says.
“This moment will demonstrate our resilience and our relevance in a completely different way.”
And the discovery of new approaches to learning should expand access especially for non-traditional students the university otherwise might not reach – “a broader band of access,” Cable calls it: