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ECU enrollment holds steady; student housing numbers dip

Total enrollment for the fall semester at East Carolina University is down by less than 1 percent despite coronavirus concerns and safety measures including a number of remote classes.

Interim Provost Grant Hayes said during Thursday meeting of the ECU Board of Trustees that COVID-19 has stalled some enrollment for some freshman and transfer students. He said nearly every university in the country is seeing enrollment delays.

Still, overall enrollment at the university is steady, he said.

“The total enrollment is down less than 1 percent, which can easily be attributed to an increase in graduation rates in recent years, as well as some of the COVID concerns,” Hayes said.

ECU received more than 22,500 freshman applications this year, the most in the university’s history. COVID has made it difficult to project exactly how many freshman will enroll, Hayes said.

“But I’m happy to say we are on record to welcome a very healthy freshman class this fall,” he said.

COVID has had a negative impact on enrollment deposits, Hayes said. The university was down by 58 from their target for deposits by June.

Transfer applications were trending downward before the pandemic and that has continued, he said. ECU was unable to recruit students in person at community colleges over the spring.

ECU will admit transfer students through July, so it is hoped transfer numbers will improve, Hayes said, while noting the university should plan for a slight decrease in transfers. Compared to last year at this time, ECU has 63 fewer transfer deposits. Rates are expected to increase as more transfer students are admitted, he said.

Hayes said student retention numbers are up from last year. The freshman fall 2019 cohort retained 84 percent of its class, which is up from 82 percent last year. The fall transfer retention rate is up by 1 percent. The university is on par with last year in credit hours.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Virginia Hardy said 5,579 students have paid their contracts for student housing, which is close to capacity. She said this is a little below what officials were anticipating.

Rooms still will be double occupancy. Those who need single occupancy due to a health or other reasons have that option available, she said.

Hardy said about 15 students canceled their housing contracts because they don’t feel comfortable living in a group setting during the COVID pandemic, and their cases are under review. There have been 145 exemptions from on-campus housing for students who live within a certain radius of campus or have children, she said, which is fewer than last year.

“We did lose some students and will continue to lose a few students to cancellations, because (their) classes are going to be all online and so the students and their parents are deciding if their classes are going to be online for the fall semester, they’re not going to stay in housing, which we understand,” Hardy said.

As part of the plan for bringing students back to campus, there will be two phases of move-in this year to reduce the number of people entering the residence halls at once, Hardy said.

Students can begin moving in their belongings either from July 23-26 or from July 30-Aug. 2. During the first phase, students and their families can register for a three-hour move-in time frame. Students then will be assigned another date they can return to campus, starting on Aug. 7, Hardy said.

West End and Todd Dining Halls will have reduced occupancy along with social distancing, Hardy said. Self-service stations will be eliminated. All food will be served by Aramark staff and silverware will be prepackaged. An app will allow students to order their food in advance and pick it up.

Face-to-face programming for student organizations will be limited to crowds of less than 50 people, and most programming will be virtual. As an example, Hardy said, Career Services wants to host some events related to resume reviews and mock interviews. The organization may offer up to three different sessions of 50 people and will maintain social distancing standards.

Hayes said classroom capacity also is being revised based on social distancing guidelines, aiming for 3 feet to 6 feet of distancing when possible.

Classes with more than 50 students will move online to meet the required standards. Assigned seating and attendance records will be used for contact tracing when needed, Hayes said.

Sunday in the Park scheduled to return in August: Concert series to extend 47th season due to pandemic

Fans of Sunday in the Park have waited six weeks to take their places at the Town Common for free, weekly summer concerts. Now it looks like they will have to stand by at least four more weeks for the music to make its return.

The popular series now is tentatively scheduled to begin on Aug. 9 with a performance by East Coast Rhythm and Blues. Concerts initially were scheduled to begin on May 31, but were postponed until July 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to limits on public gatherings, they have been put off again.

“This will be our third attempt,” said Ron Harris, a recreation supervisor who serves as coordinator for the annual series. “Hopefully we can get this thing rolling and somehow salvage some of this 47th year.”

Concerts, which traditionally begin after Memorial Day and wrap up just before Labor Day, are scheduled to be extended this year. The amended season includes eight shows, concluding on Oct. 4 with the Tar River Community Band.

The band, a fixture of the series, was to have kicked off a 2020 season that would have included more than a dozen concerts featuring musical styles such as beach, blues, Motown, country, pop and jazz.

With the change in schedule, crowd favorite The Monitors, a jazz and rhythm and blues group that has been a part of every season of Sunday in the Park, is scheduled to perform on Sept. 13. Also returning this season are Spare Change (Aug. 16), Built for Comfort (Aug. 30) and Emerald City Big Band (Sept. 27).

New this year is country musician David Lee Jones (Sept. 20), a two-time Best Country Male Artist winner at the Carolina Music Awards. Jones, a Bethel native, has opened for Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Keith Urban.

The lineup also includes Tailgate (Aug. 23) a reunion show that will feature hits from Journey, Bon Jovi and Boston.

“(James) Rowlette and (Tom) Green are getting back together with their original band to do this show,” Harris said. “They were a band here in the ‘90s. They haven’t been together in probably eight or 10 years, maybe longer.”

Due to the shorter concert series, TrainWreck; Hank, Pattie & The Current, Irresistible Groove, Will McBride Group and New Reveille will not perform this season.

“I call bands and tell them to be on hold and have to call them back. It’s sometimes frustrating, but they understand,” Harris said.

“Most of them can’t wait. They’re chomping at the bit to get out and play,” he said. “A lot of them I’ve talked say they’ve only been able to practice two or three times.”

Harris said the city is hoping that by next month the state will be entering into Phase 3 of its reopening plan, which is expected to permit larger gatherings.

“A lot of times we have well over 1,000 people at Sunday in the Park,” he said. “Keeping people spread out is a little more difficult.”

To aid in the process, the city plans to have vendors spaced throughout the park instead of being grouped together in one area. Recreation and Parks staff members also are looking at methods used in other city parks to encourage distancing, but Harris said they felt strongly that Sunday in the Park should continue if at all possible.

“Music unites people. It unites all populations and all genres,” he said.

“A lot of people ask me week to week when it’s going to start,” Harris said. “I think it’s something that people miss.”

Concerts, held at 100 E. First St., are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in August, 6 p.m. in September and 5:30 p.m. in October. Leashed pets are permitted. The inclement weather hotline is 758-7246.

NCGOP leaders blast Cooper over local convention’s cancellation

State and local Republicans accused Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday of thwarting a state convention to be held in Greenville, while Cooper said the state’s advice on the matter was based on health concerns.

N.C. GOP Chairman Michael Whatley held a news conference at the Greenville Convention Center on the eve of a convention that will now take place online today.

“We are very disappointed that 10 days ago, the governor’s staff sent us a letter basically saying we could not move forward with the convention, listing out a number of safety and liability issues,” Whatley said.

“We had proposed full compliance with all the CDC and state guidelines and regulations, as well as his executive orders.”

Even curtailed, the convention would have put needed dollars into Greenville’s economy, Whatley and local Republicans said. Pitt County GOP Chairman Gary Weaver was with Whatley; Mayor P.J. Connelly and state Rep. Perrin Jones were scheduled to attend but did not. They issued statements later.

Cooper was asked during a Thursday briefing to respond to Whatley. He said the state health officials gave the GOP the same advice they would give any group planning a large gathering.

“When you look at the numbers that are elevating across the country, and when you see how rapidly the virus can spread when you have large crowds together indoors, obviously the state Department of Health and Human Services would tell them they probably shouldn’t do that — and I commend them for taking that advice and cancelling the convention.”

The briefing covered a range of topics including that Cooper will issue guidance next week for reopening the state’s school systems. “Pandemic response cannot be partisan,” he said.

The news came on a day when the state passed 1,000 hospitalizations due to the virus. Thursday’s total was a record high of 1,034, up from 994 on Wednesday. The number of new cases confirmed by testing on Thursday was 2,039, the second-highest one-day total.

Pitt County had an increase of 18 cases, up from 14 Wednesday, bringing the total to 876. Vidant Health reported 61 people were hospitalized with the virus in its facilities in eastern North Carolina on Thursday.

The GOP’s Whatley said plans had been made to social distance, require masks and only seat 25 percent of the convention’s capacity. Instead, 1,400 delegates will join the NCGOP online from their homes and county party offices today. The virtual convention will start at 12:30 p.m., with the last speaker at 7 p.m.

“We are going to have speakers, take votes, and have everything we [would have had] except we are just not going to be able have the camaraderie and people getting together,” he added.

“We are very disappointed, because I think the enthusiasm for President Trump, Dan Forest and Tom Tillis and Republican candidates from all across the state is very high. Bringing everyone here together was going to be a really good show,” he added.

Convention center CEO Rhesa Tucker said on June 30 that she “pulled the plug” on the event because measures in place to control the spread of the virus made it impossible for the facility to host. The decision came after weeks of discussion with state, local and party officials, she said.

Whatley said the party’s accommodations would have been safe. “We fully blame it on the governor and his team,” he said.

Perrin Jones, who is a physician, said the party followed all public health recommendations, including a virtual option that many attendees chose, as well as appropriate physical spacing, the wearing of face-coverings, and an adequate number of hand sanitizing stations.

“At some point, North Carolina must convert from a sprinter’s pace to a marathon pace in dealing with COVID-19,” Jones said. “In my mind, this means we must balance all public health concerns, including those associated with social isolation, along with the education, economic and recreational opportunities our state has lost as a result of this pandemic.”

Connelly said the event would have added nearly $1 million to the local economy. “I want to also thank all of the staff of the Convention Center and other groups that worked diligently to make the event a reality up until a final decision had to be made. It is my hope that we can work with all parties to host another event in the near future that will help us showcase all of the wonderful things happening here in the east.”

Pitt County Democratic Party Chairman Charles McLawhorn issued a statement that called Thursday’s event a “political stunt.”

“Led by Gov. Cooper, Greenville residents and businesses have made serious sacrifices to protect our community — it’s reckless of appointed Rep. Perrin Jones and Republican Mayor P.J. Connelly to complain for the NCGOP to get a special exception to put lives at risk.”

School decision

Cooper on Thursday said a decision on how North Carolina public schools will reopen during the pandemic will come next week.

He previously delayed the disclosure set for July 1, saying he wanted more time to receive feedback from educators and students, review the latest science on school reopenings, and get more “buy-in across the board.”

Cooper was reticent on Wednesday to reveal how he is leaning. Schools have been asked to plan for three scenarios in preparation for classes to begin Aug. 17.

The scenarios range from in-person classrooms with minimal social distancing to all students working from home. K-12 schools teaching over 1.5 million students have been given minimum standards to meet under each of the three. Retaining regular remote learning for students is sure to bring extended hardships to working parents.

“We know that they need to get back in school. They need to do it in a safe way and that can be a combination of in-person learning and remote learning,” Cooper said at the briefing. “This is a tough call. How to open up schools is something that every single state, every single governor is struggling with.” Cooper said the plan would comply with the law, which includes a new one that appears to prevent remote learning during the first week of school.

Cooper said he also will announce next week whether businesses by his executive order — bars, gyms, skating rinks and entertainment venues among them — that’s set to expire July 17 can reopen. He and his administration have said patrons at these establishments in higher-risk activities for spreading the virus.