How do you steer a leaking ship, blindfolded, into unfamiliar waters?
A number of area colleges and universities apparently are about to find out.
And damn the torpedoes.
William Roper, the interim president of the UNC system, said in a recent letter: “I expect to reopen our campuses for the Fall 2020 Semester and look forward to welcoming our faculty and students back to their classrooms and labs this fall.”
That heady prediction implies the physical presence of students, staff and faculty — not a continuation of the emergency pivot campuses made to distance learning as the novel coronavirus took hold of every aspect of life throughout most of the world.
And if there were any doubt about Roper’s meaning, UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam erased it. “UNCG expects to open our doors and arms to our students on campus, in person, this fall,” he wrote in a letter to students, faculty and staff.
Gilliam added: “We will have to make some realistic adjustments, of course.” That’s the hard part.
As N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin noted in an April 29 letter to his campus community,“We are cognizant that the virus is unlikely to be gone by this fall, and while research is underway on potential treatments, none are likely to be available then.”
That becomes especially challenging, the News & Record’s higher education reporter, John Newsom, wrote recently, in settings that by nature are designed for high occupancy. How do you manage “in-person” interaction while also protecting the health and safety of students, staff and faculty?
Do you offer hybrid in-person/distance learning classes? Do you create smaller classes that allow healthier spacing?
Do you stagger school terms to limit the number of students on campus at any given time? Will schools have the capacity for blanket virus testing?
And the new normal will be costly at a time when universities can least afford it because as the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc academically, it also was siphoning millions in revenue from the schools.
There are also lingering unknowns. Will there be a second wave of infections as stay-at-home orders are eased? How will likely budget cuts affect the scope and quality of instruction?
One advantage for UNC schools is the opportunity to share ideas and possibly to pool resources. Another plus is the formidable knowledge, experience and resourcefulness of faculty and staff. In fact, one helpful consequence of this upheaval is that it may force innovations and new thinking that probably were overdue.
Gilliam sounded the right note in a letter earlier this spring to the UNCG community that blended candor with hopefulness.
“Well, I’m not certain and I don’t think anyone is,” he wrote of the future. “But we must keep moving forward.”
For most of us, COVID-19 is an unsolvable puzzle. It forces social creatures to defy their nature. It tempts our patience. And it turns established ways of doing things inside out.
But the UNC campuses aren’t merely services provided by the state, they’re assets. Training grounds. Centers of innovation. And an economic force.
So Gilliam is right. This won’t be easy. But it will get done. It must.