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Bennett's president talks about the college's virtual fall semester
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Bennett's president talks about the college's virtual fall semester

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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.

In July, Bennett was the first North Carolina school to announce it would offer remote-only classes during the upcoming fall semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, three other schools in the state 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 classroom instruction in September.

Bennett is among a growing number of U.S. colleges opting for online-only instruction. In June, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 8% of U.S. colleges and universities were planning for a virtual fall.

As of a week ago, the number of schools going online had risen to 14%.

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

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. ... 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.

“(A former colleague at the Bill & Melinda 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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

“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.

“I think parents completely understood. Grandparents completely understood. 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.

“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.

“We’d rather be in person. We’d rather see each other. But they get that we put their health first.”

Contact John Newsom

at (336) 373-7312 and follow

@JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

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