As K-12 public schools throughout the state await a decision from Gov. Roy Cooper regarding the method of instruction for the 2020-21 school year, Western Piedmont Community College officials made the decision to hold primarily remote classes, WPCC President Joel Welch told The News Herald on Tuesday.
“We’re not under the same guidance on opening as the secondary school systems are,” Welch said. “In one sense, we’re developing our own plans. We’re working in accordance with the governor’s guidance, which means we’re looking at face coverings and social distancing and how that’s going to work on our campus.”
WPCC also is taking guidance from the Burke County Health Department’s guidelines, other college officials throughout the area and community college officials throughout the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS), as well as the CDC.
Welch said “the vast majority” of classes will be held online for the fall semester, while a number of classes “that have to be on campus” will be held onsite. The onsite classes will feature social distancing, and the college will “strongly encourage” face coverings, unless a student has a medical condition permitting them from wearing one. In labs and classrooms where social distancing cannot be practiced, the college will require face coverings, Welch said.
“We have some students who we know learn better in a face-to-face environment,” Welch said. “We are looking to see where we can put some hybrid classes in place, but this will be a small part of our course offerings this fall.”
Welch said he has had the opportunity to talk to students and college faculty regarding the decision, which has resulted in mixed opinions from both parties.
“We’ve talked to (college personnel) who are ready to be on campus and others who are concerned,” Welch said. “The big thing is folks really would like a very clear-cut answer (regarding a return). That’s what we’re trying to give, in a situation that’s constantly changing. We are maintaining some flexibility, but most folks — when we talk about having our courses in a remote format, that format works for most people.”
Welch said a number of students have reached out to indicate their opinions to the college.
“We have some students who are very clear that they’re only coming back if we offer classes in a distance format,” he said. “We also have some students who are telling us they’re waiting to enroll to see if we will offer some face-to-face classes. We know that some students learn better in that environment. I understand why they’re waiting, so that’s why we’re looking at ways we may be able to serve them.”
The decision to hold mostly online classes came down to a number of factors, according to Welch.
“(One key factor was) first and foremost, how do we really support our students,” Welch said. “(Another key factor was) the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. We want to be a part of the solution and we understand we have a diverse employee body and a diverse student body. We’re trying to work in a way that is sensitive to how our people and our community are approaching this.”
According to Welch, the decision to hold mostly remote classes was a difficult one, as he said he would personally prefer having in-person classes throughout the fall.
“I think having students on campus is so vibrant,” Welch said. “Our student body is why we are here, and it’s so important to us. But at the same time, we are planning and trying to work in a way that will protect our students and protect our employees as much as possible. We’re maintaining as much flexibility as we can.”
As of Wednesday, many higher institutions throughout the state are holding plans to reconvene for in-person classes in the fall, including all schools in the UNC System, as well as local schools such as Lenoir-Rhyne University.
Welch, who is in his first week as president of WPCC, joked that “the first week is devoted to meetings.”
“I’m meeting individually with a lot of the folks inside the college and learning about the college,” Welch said. “We have a fantastic college here. WPCC has a great reputation in the NCCCS, so I want to learn more about it, being on the inside.”
Welch said he has had a chance to hold meetings with community leaders, and was in attendance for Thursday night’s meeting held by the city of Morganton in conjunction with local community partners who met to address racial tensions in response to George Floyd’s killing on May 25 in Minnesota.
“I had a chance to listen and hear and think about how WPCC fits into that community,” Welch said. “(WPCC) plans to strongly address inequity within our community and our student bodies. When we think about our disadvantaged students, our minority students, our students from lower socioeconomic status, we really want to make sure that we are doing everything on our side to remove barriers, to be inclusive, and to give every student their best opportunity for success. As an open-access institution, that’s who we are.”
The college will begin registration on Monday, and student services staff are notifying students how they can hold their advisement meetings remotely.
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