The Sylva Herald

Editor’s note: The Herald submitted a series of questions to Western Carolina University leadership regarding the opening of the school year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Below are answers from various campus leaders. The Herald thanks Chief Communications Officer Bill Studenc for his legwork in getting the responses.

SAM MILLER, vice chancellor for student affairs:

Earlier this month, a group of current and emeritus faculty from across the UNC system sent a letter to top UNC System leadership and the UNC Board of Governors, urging them to join other university systems in making online instruction the default for the coming fall semester as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The letter said “current student housing plans put our dormitories in the Center for Disease Control’s ‘highest risk’ category for spreading the virus.” What steps are being taken to ameliorate that risk?

At WCU, the residence halls will be opening with fewer students living on campus this year, and with the common areas, such as kitchens and study rooms, being off line. We’re also implementing new limits on residence hall visitation to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. Residential Living information is posted at the fall 2020 operations and procedures website linked on WCU’s main page or at this direct link:

What if school opens and then shuts down? What happens to students in dorms who have no other place to stay?

Earlier this year, WCU provided housing and food services to several hundred students when classes shifted to online. In March 2020, WCU made an application process available for students to apply to remain on-campus. A committee reviewed the applications and allowed students to stay on campus as approved on a case-by-case basis. While we can’t offer any guarantees about the future, WCU might use a similar process depending on the circumstances.

What’s the status of the dining halls and takeout venues?

Catamount Dining will offer take-out only service at all venues with limited seating available. The conference center space of Blue Ridge Hall will also be made available as a seating area where students can eat. Details about Catamount Dining information are posted at the fall 2020 operations and procedures website linked on WCU’s main page or at this direct link:

Will widespread testing be available for students? What’s the turnaround time on tests?

WCU’s Health Services clinic is available to students and offers COVID-19 testing. Testing is not available on demand at WCU Health Services. Tests are administered based on screening guidelines. Individuals concerned they have been exposed to COVID-19 should follow CDC guidelines and call WCU Health Services to discuss symptoms and concerns with a health care provider to determine the need for testing.

Should a student show symptoms, where would they isolate?

WCU will encourage these students to self-isolate and quarantine back home at their permanent residence. For students living on campus, if traveling home isn’t an option, Madison Residence Hall will be utilized this fall as an isolation and quarantine facility. For students living off campus, if traveling home isn’t an option, they’ll be asked to isolate and quarantine at their apartment or rental residence.

What are the plans to ensure students practice masking and social distancing at non-school sponsored events?

WCU has a promotional campaign called “Catamounts Care,” which encourages everyone in the campus community to embrace the recommended prevention practices. Individuals who fail to follow these standards may be asked to leave venues and may be refused access to services. In some circumstances, some students may be subject to the student discipline process. Details about Catamounts Care and related information are posted at the fall 2020 operations and procedures website linked on WCU’s main page or at this direct link:

Are there plans for the school to respond to, say, invitations on social media to large gatherings/parties?

WCU does not monitor social media for student gatherings. For non-school sponsored events, WCU is encouraging students to be responsible members of the community. WCU will address behaviors in the campus community by providing additional information and education about the dangers associated with community spread of COVID-19.

MELISSA WARGO, chief of staff:

What steps are being taken to ensure/improve/expedite communication between WCU and the surrounding community regarding COVID updates?

We will continue to update the fall 2020 website (, where we post all of the latest information related to our plans for the fall semester. We will continue to provide weekly Campus Updates as needed. These updates are shared with key community partners such as Jackson County Public Health, the Jackson County manager’s office, Harris Hospital, Southwestern Community College, Jackson County Public Schools and others. We also are glad that our friends in the regional media are helping spread the word about our efforts at WCU to develop plans for fall through an inclusive process in which we make decisions based on science and data, and with guidance from local and state agencies, the governor and the University of North Carolina System.

Will face coverings be required for all students, faculty and staff, indoors and/or outdoors? Will they be supplied to students or available for purchase? Handwashing stations?

According to the community standards of WCU’s Catamounts Care campaign, face coverings are REQUIRED in all public instructional and work environments. Those not wearing face coverings may be asked to leave a classroom, office or public event. All students, faculty and staff are being issued free of charge six cloth face coverings, a personal thermometer, a personal refillable hand sanitizer, and a flyer on our Catamounts Care Community Standards. Hand sanitizing stations will be available at the majority of main entrances to campus buildings.

Has the COVID response at WCU benefited in any unique way from Kelli Brown’s health background?

Yes, Chancellor Brown’s background has been essential in providing context and expertise for return to learn and return to work procedures. And I believe the entire UNC System has benefited from the experience of interim President Bill Roper, former CEO of the UNC Health System and a physician who previously served as director of the CDC.

RICHARD STARNESinterim provost:

Should COVID cases spike on campus, is there a number that would cause a shutdown?

We are discussing various metrics to track COVID-19 related issues on campus, and to inform response and decision making, as are other schools in the UNC System. WCU will not shut down, and did not shut down in the spring term. Authority for any decision to move to a fully-online instruction modality rests with the UNC System president and the UNC Board of Governors.

Are there intermediate steps that would be implemented short of a shutdown?

WCU has not prepared any intermediate steps. We will continue to monitor federal, state and local guidance and calibrate our day-to-day operations accordingly. WCU is intertwined with Jackson County, the WNC region and North Carolina. We will follow the science and guidance as best we can with the goal of serving our educational mission while maintaining the well-being of our campus community members.

MIKE BYERS, vice chancellor for administration and finance:

Will Cat-Tran buses be limited as to how many passengers they can take?

Cat-Tran began operating on a modified schedule beginning Aug. 1. Shuttles will run at 50 percent of normal seating capacity to allow social distancing. Passengers will be required to wear a face covering. Eating or drinking will not be permitted on the buses. Cat-Tran drivers will wear a face covering and a Plexiglas barrier has been installed between the driver’s seat and the passenger seating area. Shuttle cleaning procedures have been established in accordance with CDC guidelines for public transit.