As students transition into summer and North Carolina eases into Phase 2 of the reopening process, it may seem that normalcy is on the horizon, but the changes are far from over. Hospitalizations are still increasing in North Carolina and Mecklenburg County. While UNC Charlotte hopes to have an in-person semester, there are plans in the works to vary course delivery and prepare for the possibility of moving back online. Other universities are doing the same, with many schools like UNC Chapel Hill starting early and ending at Thanksgiving.
On May 29, Chancellor Dubois announced the altered academic calendar for fall 2020. Classes will begin Monday, Sept. 7, two weeks after the previously scheduled start date on Aug. 24. In a meeting with the Student Government Association (SGA), Dubois said the date was pushed back to give faculty time to prepare online courses, avoid the projected COVID-19 peak in late July and accommodate the Republican National Convention set to take place Aug. 24-27 at the Spectrum Center. President Trump, however, has threatened to pull the convention out of North Carolina if Gov. Cooper doesn’t allow full occupancy.
To make up for the two week delay, the University has adopted a plan to eliminate fall break, eliminate Thanksgiving Eve break, end classes on Dec. 15 and hold exams from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23. The spring 2021 semester will start Jan. 20, extending winter break by three days.
The announcement came days after SGA published the results of their referendum on the fall 2020 calendar. Of the nearly 3,000 students that voted, 89 percent opposed UNC Charlotte’s academic calendar while 90 percent supported SGA’s proposed schedule of maintaining the original start date of Aug. 24 and utilizing remote learning until Sept. 7 in order to preserve breaks and end the semester earlier.
In a specially-convened SGA meeting with Provost Lorden, Freshman Class President Dick Beekman raised concerns about how the lack of breaks could negatively affect students’ mental health. Lorden responded, “I really don’t think that Oct. 12 and 13 are going to make that much difference in terms of peoples’ mental health.”
Dubois said that SGA’s proposed calendar does not give faculty enough time to adjust their courses. “What we had in the spring wasn’t optimal,” he added.
While UNC Charlotte seems to have already solidified plans to eliminate breaks and end the semester on Dec. 23, the calendar must be confirmed by June 28.
Class schedules will be altered to reduce classroom density and accommodate students who may be immunocompromised or live with someone who is. There are three options under consideration for how to deliver classes: completely face to face, hybrid or completely online. Faculty are being asked to work with department chairs to determine the best option for each course.
Students and professors seem to be at odds on the best method to deliver courses. A survey of 162 faculty and staff members conducted by the UNC Charlotte chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) revealed that 65 percent preferred completely remote delivery, 25 percent preferred a hybrid option and 9 percent wanted entirely face-to-face instruction. Another survey of 363 faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences showed preference for the completely online option with strong feelings against entirely face to face courses and indifference towards a hybrid system.
A Niner Times survey of 1,300 graduate and undergraduate students showed 60 percent of students favor completely in-person classes with the remainder split equally between hybrid and online courses. Students have not been formally surveyed by the University.
During the May 19 SGA meeting, Chancellor Dubois said he doesn’t know of a deadline for when professors and department chairs must decide how courses will be delivered. Regardless of the form of delivery, all instructors must provide a method for students to complete course requirements remotely.
On May 13, UNCC-AAUP sent a letter to the administration stating, “We demand, above all, faculty, student and staff representation in every step of this decision-making. We propose that this be institutionalized, in the form of an advisory board of faculty (tenure track as well as non-tenure track), students and staff.”
A Fall Planning Advisory Group has since been formed consisting of Provost Lorden and about a dozen professors, though reportedly no students are members.
Other fall considerations
Students can expect changes to dining and residence halls. In a May 14 letter to UNC System chancellors, Interim President Bill Roper said students with pre-existing health conditions should be placed in single occupancy rooms. Universities were also instructed to prepare a place for students to quarantine if infected.
While UNC Charlotte has not announced any plans for the residence halls, UNC Chapel Hill plans to house students at standard capacity and reserve two dorms for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those who have been exposed to the virus.
Roper said, “The UNC System Office will work with all institutions to evaluate the feasibility of conducting COVID testing, antibody testing and contact tracing.”
According to a question and answer sheet developed from a University-led townhall, dining halls will stop buffet-style operations, instead serving food and offering to-go options. Outdoor dining is also under consideration.
Director of Issues Management and External Media Relations Buffie Stephens says that plans for housing and dining halls are still being refined, but “comprehensive guidance will be shared with students well in advance of returning to campus.”
As for face masks, it is unclear whether they will be required. In the letter to university chancellors, Roper said, “Students, faculty, staff and visitors should wear masks at all times;” however, it is unknown whether this will be enforced. Provost Lorden told SGA members in a meeting on May 12 that professors can ask students who forego masks to leave class.
Additionally, all fall study abroad programs have also been discontinued per instruction from the UNC System.
Roper requires that all UNC institutions develop a contingency plan for abruptly moving entirely online should an executive order or campus outbreak occur. All university planning for fall 2020 must be completed by June 1 so that it can be reviewed by the UNC System in early June.
Among the many considerations regarding the fall semester is the fact that the University will be adding over 7,000 new students with 4,000 anticipated freshmen - the largest freshman class ever.
Note: The Niner Times survey cited in this article was not a random sample of students.