Smoky Mountain News, (Opinion by By Kelli R. Brown, chancellor of Western Carolina University • Guest Columnist)
These are uncertain and challenging times. Our communities, our state and our nation are grappling with an unprecedented set of issues that affect each and every one of us.
As chancellor of Western Carolina University, I believe that institutions of higher education can help prepare our citizens to live through times like these — how to cope, how to manage and perhaps not just survive, but thrive.
On campus in Cullowhee, we begin fall semester 2020 against a backdrop of conflicting emotions. We look forward with enthusiasm and optimism in welcoming students back to campus to begin their studies Monday, Aug. 17. And yes, in these unprecedented times, we also are feeling cautious and reserved as we work diligently to fulfill our mission and protect the well-being of our communities both on and off campus.
A historic pandemic has brought us to this time and this place, which means taking precautions and acting responsibly. Our decisions about this semester are based on science and data, with guidance from local and state agencies, the governor and the University of North Carolina System. Instruction this fall will be a blend of traditional classes, online instruction and hybrid course delivery.
There will be no fall break, and all final exam week activities will be conducted online or via other alternative formats. Dining halls will have limited seating and provide take-out meals. No outside visitors will be allowed in residence halls and only one guest will be allowed in a residence hall room at a time. Classroom and lab space have been reevaluated, with space between occupants increased and capacity decreased. Incredibly, our diligent staff and faculty have rearranged more than 3,000 pieces of furniture to make this happen.
North Carolina remains under Phase 2 restrictions for COVID-19, with advisements for social distancing, frequent hand-washing, avoiding crowds and wearing proper face coverings. Public health is a shared responsibility — and it is one that we take seriously. A total of 15 multi-disciplinary campus committees examined and made recommendations for the start of WCU’s fall semester.
Already, WCU has launched a “Catamounts Care” campaign to assist with acclimating our community to our new normal as we resume campus residential operations. Bags with six reusable cloth face coverings, a large container of sanitizing wipes, a refillable bottle of hand sanitizer, a thermometer and a copy of our expected community standards are being distributed. Our University Health Services has developed protocols, in consultation with the Jackson County Department of Public Health, for diagnostic COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. We have established comfortable living quarters for on-campus student residents to quarantine, should the need arise.
We are providing weekly updates on our fall plans to the campus community and we share those with our community partners, such as Jackson County Public Schools, the Jackson County Manager, Harris Regional Hospital, Southwestern Community College and others. Local media outlets, including The Smoky Mountain News, have played a crucial role in dissemination of factual news and information to the public.
Yet, in light of all our preparation, we also are aware that situations can change. If the past months have taught us anything, it is that any response to COVID-19 requires a high level of flexibility and patience. The well-being of students, faculty and staff, and our off-campus neighbors is — and always will be — a primary concern. WCU will take the necessary steps to maintain health and wellness as needed and adjust as circumstances dictate. But we cannot do this alone. Our community partners are essential allies in ensuring that we successfully navigate these unprecedented times.
Throughout this pandemic, WCU has continued to deliver its mission with quality and excellence. I am proud that the pandemic has not stopped the “Catamount Community.” We have continued to teach classes in alternative formats, conduct outreach to our region and state, produce top notch research and, through some really creative and innovative thinking, we have offered the arts and cultural activities for which WCU is known. If anything, there has been a collective, robust and vigorous response here to maintaining vibrancy in spite of COVID-19.
WCU has a mission — a duty — to provide learning opportunities that incorporate teaching, research, service and engagement. We will not abandon that mission even in these challenging times. We will prepare students to be their best as health care providers, teachers, engineers, scientists, musicians and artists, and many other careers. We will prepare leaders to meet the needs of the future in whatever form that may take.
Western Carolina University is ready for the challenges ahead. Together we can honor our promise to our students, our faculty and staff, and our communities.