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Virtual Classroom

With the University’s COVID-19 closure, the organizers of summer programs at Carolina—from coursework for both graduate and undergraduate students, to support from Campus Wellness, the Writing Center, Learning Center and University Career Services, to outreach programs Project Uplift and Uplift PLUS, to the Chancellor’s Science Scholars—have had to redefine what it means to offer “hands on” experiences by shifting quickly to a virtual model.

This is no easy pivot, as planning for these programs is generally done months in advance and often involves complicated scheduling with cross-campus partnerships, locations and, sometimes, housing. How are these departments and offices facing the massive modification and challenges inherent in them?

“For day to day, we converted our already existing tutoring appointments to support the student athletes to Zoom appointments,” said Jennifer Townsend, associate director of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, “but it’s awkward to meet your tutor for the first time over Zoom. There are also time difference and technology issues.”

In addition, participant numbers have decreased. “Normally, we have about 90 first year and transfer students who attend Summer II,” she says, “but we have less than half of that this year. Some of the reason is financial – it’s not an ideal situation for students to start college taking their course online. Most students are taking only one course instead of two. So, we cut back on what we usually do – two days of workshops and other presentations. Instead, we’ll concentrate on what’s really important.”

Suzanne Barbour, dean of the Graduate School, faced a similar downturn in numbers. “Graduate Student course registrations are down about 25% for North Carolina residents. We’re not sure if this is because of uncertainties on campus or in their personal lives.”

For the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s Project Uplift and Uplift PLUS programs, Rachel Tates, director of Student Access and Success programs, noted that although numbers are on track for both programs, the timeline for the programs was shortened and they had to decide which components were essential. “All the college prep pieces—test prep, student aid and scholarships, essay writing—had to remain, but we had to change the format. Test prep is usually two hours, but to hold people’s attention that long is a challenge, so we’re now keeping sessions around 45 minutes and recording sessions so the students can go back and get that info later.”

For the interactive aspects of the programs—the talent show and dance challenges—the team (which includes some incredibly creative student ambassadors) had to think outside the box when it came to technology. “We’re using mostly Zoom,” said Rachel, “but we are also using the Mighty Network platform for the online community piece and a Slate webinar to help limit how many links the students are getting.”

Zoom has been somewhat of a salvation to most of these programs. “We turned all of the writing and academic coaching and peer tutoring to Zoom platforms,” said Kimberly Abels, director of the Writing Center and Learning Center. “We have a Zoom dissertation boot camp and, this summer, we’re working hard on outreach in virtual forms.”

The Chancellor’s Science Scholars program, which includes six credit hours (math and communications courses) for students excelling in the STEM fields, moved to online courses developed by the respective instructors via Zoom and Sakai. “We’ve readjusted how we typically do the program. It’s an intense five-and-a-half-week program where every moment is scheduled,” said Program Coordinator Dr. Noelle-Erin Romero. “We cut a lot out and are hoping to move some of those [elements] into the fall so the students can continue to build a community with each other. We’re working with the Learning Center and the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion to create workshops and keeping the sessions at 45-60 minutes to keep their attention online.”

Zoom’s many bells and whistles can be incredibly useful in keeping meetings interesting while staring at a computer screen. “I’m impressed at what folks are doing to get everyone involved, from brainstorming on chat lists to breakout rooms in Zoom,” noted Lynn Blanchard, director of Carolina Center for Public Service (CCPS). “There is an increased sense of excitement for the students.”

For Campus Health, however, Zoom is not an option: HIPAA rules for patient privacy prohibit unsecured online communication. As a result, Telehealth has become their mode of providing service. “Business is open, but different,” said Melody Gibson, health information manager. “All counseling services are on Telehealth. The switch went relatively smooth and the students enjoyed it. We will continue with that through the fall, although we have regulations regarding students who are out of state.”

The smooth running of these programs has also been impacted by the closure slowing down an already complicated hiring process to procure staff support this summer. “We usually hire three or four Chancellor’s Science Scholars alumni to help the new cohort form their identity,” said Thomas Freeman, executive director of CSS. “Now, we don’t need [as many], but [still] ran into difficulties.”

The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion was fortunate to have started the hiring process earlier, having given out their offers of employment pre-closure, in February. “We wouldn’t be able to hold any of our programs without our student [hires],” said Gretchen C. Bellamy, senior director for Education, Operations and Initiatives.

Other units had to be creative with their hires. “We hired a graduate assistant to help out with Summer Bridge,” said Victoria Chavis, coordinator for Co-Curricular and Academic Engagement in Student Success and Academic Counseling. “We had to complete a waiver request so that we could pay and we were able to hire student tutors for the classes we have…but we also completed the hiring process before COVID-19.”

Employment is a big issue affecting students, especially now that potential outlets for positions have disappeared due to the pandemic. Dr. Tierney Bates, interim executive director of University Career Services, connected students with alumni who faced a similar dearth of jobs during the economic downturn of 2008. “They can offer strategies and tips to current students who are nervous about [the situation]. Our students still need to keep their skills going to make themselves attractive to employers.”

Looking ahead to the fall, various units are struggling with concerns about how, exactly, the semester will take place. “We’re waiting with bated breath to see what the instructional model will look like before we can wrap our heads around the implications for the student population connected with ARS,” said Simon Bloor, associate director of Accessibility Resources and Service. “We’ve noticed that ARS-connected students fell into two camps – one that is absolutely loving the remote instruction and another that absolutely loathe it. A one size fits all model is not likely and we’re just hoping that there will be more opportunities for choice [when we return in the fall].”

Accommodations [for different abilities] for ARS-connected students is another concern. “Accommodations were written on the premise that students would be seated in a class. Right now, we’re still in the phase where we are reconstructing them into a different plan and are waiting for information on the instructional model to be adopted,” he added, noting, “Faculty colleagues have been encouraged to be flexible and adopt a Universal Design mindset to their instruction, which is important for our students to thrive.”

Perhaps the greatest issue impacting all of these programs—and Carolina as a whole —is the logistics surrounding the fall semester. With the first day of classes moved up to August 10, the scramble to prepare for the start of school complicates plans to accommodate student needs.

“When you think about what the start of school might look like and starting in early August, we have two-thirds of our students living off-campus with leases that are based on assumption of a mid-August move-in,” noted Chris Williams, director of Student Affairs Information Technology (SAIT). “This is a major problem.”

“Second,” he continued, “there is a potential proposal that changes when the classes will actually be held, in order to stretch out through the day and provide space flexibility. Classes may run to 9:00 at night, which means many support entities for students where programming usually happens in the afternoon will be impacted.”

It all can seem like a game of whack-a-mole, with one problem emerging just after another has been solved. But the ability of these various units to be flexible and creative is what makes us a united Carolina. While many questions remain, the one thing we can all be certain of is that, out of necessity, the best ideas will emerge to drive us towards a new way of providing services and programs to our students.


Written by Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity & Inclusion


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