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'We put their health first': Bennett College's president talks about the school's virtual fall semester

'We put their health first': Bennett College's president talks about the school's virtual fall semester

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Bennett College Suzanne Walsh Zoom call 2020

Bennett College President Suzanne Walsh takes part in a Zoom conference call on July 29, 2020, with News & Record reporter John Newsom. Monty Hagler, president and CEO of RLF Communications in Greensboro, is the college's spokeman.

GREENSBORO — While most of North Carolina's colleges and universities zigged toward reopening their campuses this month, Bennett College zagged toward a virtual fall semester.

Bennett in July was the first N.C. school to announce that it will offer only remote classes during the upcoming fall semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, three other N.C. private schools have said they will be online-only this fall: Johnson C. Smith and Queens universities in Charlotte and Salem College in Winston-Salem. A fifth, Mars Hill University north of Asheville, said last week it will start the fall semester online but hopes to move to in-person instruction in September.

Bennett is among a growing number of U.S. colleges opting for online-only instruction. In late June, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 8 percent of U.S. colleges and universities were planning for a virtual fall and nearly two-thirds expected to hold most of their classes in-person. As of a week ago, the number of schools going online-only this fall had risen to 14 percent, but the number planning for only or mostly face-to-face classes had dropped to less than half.

News & Record higher education reporter John Newsom talked last week via Zoom with Suzanne Walsh, president of the historically Black women's college that's on track to have about 200 students enrolled this fall. Walsh talked about why and how Bennett will operate virtually this fall — the college hasn't yet decided about spring semester instruction, she said — and how students and employees reacted.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why is Bennett College offering only virtual instruction this fall?

A: "Since April the board (of trustees) and I have been talking about what the fall would look like. As long ago as April, we'd been saying we probably would not be in person. The No. 1 thing that we were watching — it was only about the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. The data we've been tracking is, what does coronavirus look like in North Carolina, in Guilford County and more specifically for women of color because that's our student population and predominantly our faculty and staff.

"Our population is really different than everybody else's. While a predominantly white institution can make one decision based on health, ours is going to be different. I know the percentages of our students, faculty and staff who have the comorbidities (diabetes and asthma and other respiratory issues) that make them more vulnerable.

"We received really great counseling and support for the data and the science all along from one of my former Bill & Melinda Gates (Foundation) colleagues (where Walsh worked before coming to Bennett) and an alumna who is a social epidemiologist (Sharrelle Barber, an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University in Philadelphia). She was able to share with us at the board meeting the latest data, and we were not going in a great direction in North Carolina or Guilford County.

"My colleague from the Gates Foundation said to me that what the board and I had to consider was, first, do we have enough tests for our students, faculty and staff if we were to come back in person? In the spring we ordered 10 test kits and we received only one. When you're not part of the state system you're kind of fending for yourself as an independent college. If that was the case in the spring and we weren't even in the same position we are now as a country and a state and a county, oh my gosh, what's going to happen for the fall?

"The other question was ... what are we going to do if a case happens on our campus. (The former Gates Foundation colleague) said, you have to stop saying if. You have to say when a case happens. Pre-vaccine, everyone will have at least one case, whether it's a student, faculty or staff. The question becomes, when that case happens, do we have the ability to isolate, quarantine and contact trace? At Bennett College, we don't. We couldn't get over those two threshold questions.

"We're seeing these spikes in our state, in the county. We're bringing our students from states that are also spiking. Then you have to start thinking about if we brought everybody back and then we have to vacate — are they all going to be able to leave? You can't put a sick person on a train, on a plane, on a bus. It was very messy and all health-related.

"One of the things that I committed to faculty was, I'm going to make one decision for the fall. It is not going to be a bunch of if-then scenarios. Our faculty senate president said to me, this is what my colleagues are being asked at other institutions. Faculty are wiped out. That's not fair to have them do all these scenarios because they have their own lives, their own families. I committed to one decision for students and families too. How do you plan with all of these if-then contingencies? Because our students are all not coming from super-wealthy families, we definitely wanted to make sure they had a clear path in the fall.

"Every day we're seeing more and more institutions saying, maybe we're not coming back. I think that's very very challenging for families."

Q: What will Bennett look like this fall?

A: "We broke up the semester into three mini-mesters. There's a two-week session when students come back. That's where they'll take their one-credit classes. And then there are two seven-week sessions. It adds up to the same number of weeks we always have in a semester. Students are then only taking two courses at a time (during the seven-week terms). It really lets them concentrate on their studies and not be overwhelmed. It allows faculty the same opportunity. And it allows for a different kind of engagement in a virtual environment.

"If we had stuck with the traditional schedule — people think of (an online class) as 50 minutes of Zoom — how do we instead think about a larger chunk of time that can be more discussion- or project-based? Faculty are now in training and are learning to offer their courses in a virtual environment. We're really excited about that opportunity. We're focusing on community and focusing on pacing at the right level. Students have so many other things going on — we know our students are working in those essential front-line jobs — and we're trying to be supportive of that.

"We'll still have virtual student activities — not as many, but we will still have them. We're trying to figure out what does it mean to be a virtual community."

Q: What lessons did you learn from being online-only during the spring?

A: "We surveyed our students and our faculty and staff and that really helped to inform areas for improvement, areas that weren't really on our radar.

"Faculty wanted some professional development to help them with their (online) courses. We're working with three different partners to help faculty redo their syllabi and how they're using their time. We used our (federal) CARES Act money to help faculty transition to online learning ... and also making sure we're supporting students who don't have access to technology.

"And then, what are the things we need to put in place to support students in this virtual environment? One of the things that we're moving to is student success coaches. Instead of the traditional adviser model, which is really all about the schedule, we are taking a holistic approach. We're saying to students, you will be assigned a person who is going to help you on this journey through college (and) help you make connections to different departments. ... This holistic support is really critical, especially in a virtual environment. But just moving forward, even in person, it's going to be great.

"Also: What are the various apps that can be used to help support students? We're working with an app that will help connect students to do some peer interaction and tutoring. We still have our professional tutors available. We still have our mental health counselors available. We're trying to use technology to beef up and support, not replace. Those are big changes. Even when we're in person, those will be great changes."

Q: How did students and employees react to Bennett's decision to go virtual?

A: "I dropped hints (during the spring) because I needed everyone to be mentally prepared for the final decision of the board. I also before the board meeting sent out a communication to faculty, staff, students and families to say, here is our decision criteria that is going into this discussion. We will make a decision about the fall based on this criteria.

"Faculty and staff weren't surprised. They had a lot of opportunities to comment (before) on where my thinking was. They could see where we were going. But I could see where they were headed based on the kind of questions that they were starting to raise. I think they felt comfortable with the decision. They miss their students, but we're not willing to risk our health for that.

"For students and families, we did two town halls on the same day. We have a lot of grandparents with whom our students live. In the second town hall, one of the grandparents put in the chat, "Praise Jesus." If we were bringing students back (to campus), we would be sending them back to you. I think parents completely understood. Grandparents completely understood. The parents' association president said (jokingly) to me, 'Hmmm, I don't know if we want our daughters staying home again.' That's the funny thing about parents. For parents and families, (they said) it's more family time, but we get it, and we would rather our daughters be safe, and we appreciate that. That's the theme that kept coming back: Everyone understood that health came first. That helped everyone to not be surprised.

"Of course students are sad. Incoming freshwomen are devastated. When we announced, so few colleges across the country had announced. So there were students who were saying, I'm going to go to (college in) another state. One said, I'm going to go to Florida. And a student who lives in Florida said, 'Oh, girl, you don't want to come to Florida. It's bad here.' They started supporting each other. You've got to think it all through — get the emotions out first and then, yeah, OK, we get it.

"We'd rather be in person. We'd rather see each other. But they get that we put their health first."

Accreditation update

Bennett College took a big step recently toward gaining accreditation with another higher education organization.

A four-person team from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools visited the college June 23-26. TRACS officials reviewed the college's finances, academics and other areas covered in a 120-page report Bennett had to compile about itself before the visit. Bennett President Suzanne Walsh said the visit went well.

"They had so many positive things in their exit interview with me to say about faculty, our staff, our staff, our alums and our board (of trustees)," Walsh said. "That was really a reflection of a lot of hard work."

Next step: Bennett in October will go before TRACS' Accreditation Commission, which could grant the college candidate status. If successful, Bennett then can work toward becoming a full TRACS member. That process will take several years. In the meantime, Bennett will be considered accredited in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Education, and Bennett students will continue to receive federal financial aid.

About TRACS: The 86 TRACS member schools are small faith-based private colleges located across the United States and around the world. TRACS has six North Carolina members, including Carolina University (formerly Piedmont International University) in Winston-Salem. Bennett is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

Where things stand: Bennett continues to be accredited for now by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. SACSCOC in 2018 ended Bennett's accreditation after 83 years because of concerns over the college's financial situation. Bennett sued SACSCOC in early 2019 after losing its appeal of the association's decision to revoke accreditation. The commission agreed to restore Bennett's accreditation temporarily during federal court proceedings.

Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.​

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