Monday was a back-to-school like no other at East Carolina University as students resumed their classes online following an extended spring break.
To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, ECU joined schools across the University of North Carolina system and others throughout the country in beginning alternatives to in-person instruction. Dorms have been closed as students are finishing their semester through distance education.
In a memorandum issued to students and faculty on Monday, Acting Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Grant Hayes said “the coming weeks will require flexibility, compassion and understanding.”
“This disruption to our daily lives is unlike any of us have ever experienced,” Hayes said in a separate, prepared statement issued earlier in the day. “What we have been asked is nothing less than a complete reimaging of higher education and we have had very little time to do it.”
For students like Elora Hunter, online courses are not the way she imagined completing her senior year. Before schools and universities canceled classes, Hunter was working on her theater education internship at North Pitt High School, where the county’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported last week.
“I guess my biggest concern is, it sounds selfish ... ‘Am I going to complete my coursework and am I going to graduate?” said Hunter, who has begun teaching virtually.
Hayes, who has served as dean of ECU’s College of Education since 2015, said in an online interview that it is important to keep in mind that ECU has been offering distance education for years.
“This delivery method isn’t new to many of our faculty and students,” he said, adding that a significant number of ECU faculty members already incorporate Learning Management Systems including Blackboard and Canvas into their courses.
Hayes said those same systems allow instructors to track attendance, hold group discussions and assign class presentations that can be recorded on a computer or smartphone. In addition, ECU faculty members have access to an online proctoring system, Respondus, for testing. Even lab instruction is able to be conducted virtually through lab simulation software including Labster and JoVE, Hayes said.
That is good news for students like Hannah Lawson, a science education and chemistry major.
Lawson, 20, of Walnut Cove, moved out of Gateway Residence Hall on Saturday. Living three hours away from her former classmates means there are no opportunities for traditional study groups or collaborative work on projects. Most of her coursework has been adapted into online lectures, self-research and online modules, she said.
“The big difference is students not getting hands-on work that is an enriching part of the education experience,” Lawson said.
Even for students previously enrolled in online classes, measures taken due to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought changes. Amy Shannon, director of university studies, said some of the online classes in the program are practicum courses involving internships.
“We’ve had to be really flexible because some of their internships have been canceled,” she said, explaining that locations such as nursing homes no longer allow interns to enter. “We’ve had to make some plans on how to help these students where their internship sites are saying, ‘You cannot come back.’”
Within the university studies program, nearly half of enrolled students are 25 or older. Shannon said some of her students are employed full time in addition to taking online courses and now are trying to work from home and take care of children who are out of school due to the virus.
“We’re trying to work with them and be flexible with due dates and make accommodations where we can,” she said.
“(But) the majority of our students are already online, so it hasn’t been so difficult for us,” Shannon said. “For some of these programs, I just cannot even imagine how difficult it is to transition to all of this online, not only for the faculty but for the students as well.”
The university’s website offers a list of resources to help both faculty and students adjust to the changes.
Hayes said on Monday that ECU has not heard complaints about online instruction from any students who lack internet access at home. ECU computer labs are not available for students to use to complete assignments.
Faculty members have been instructed to identify students who are not participating in online courses so that they can call those students to determine how to help them.
In addition, Hayes announced Monday that emergency grading accommodations are being made for the spring semester that include implementing a pass/fail option for undergraduate students.
Students like Alexa Moyer of Coopersburg, Pa., would rather be in a classroom setting with access to her instructors and the campus library. The 19-year-old also finds it inconvenient to do without some of the things that she left in Greene Residence Hall during spring break. Because her parents live eight hours away, she has opted not to return to campus by Wednesday to retrieve her belongings but to wait until May. Still, she understands the measures that ECU has taken.
“It’s not something I would like to do, but I think it’s good for what’s going on even though it’s a little confusing and all over the place,” she said. “It doesn’t really seem like anyone really knows what’s happening, but we’ll figure it out.”
ECU has not yet addressed questions about residence hall and dining refunds options, saying it is waiting on guidance from the UNC system to determine what actions to take.
UNC System Interim President Bill Roper issued an update on the system’s coronavirus response on Monday, saying that answers to many questions are pending.
“We’re addressing the most critical issues first, health and safety, the transition to online learning and the well being of our students in need,” he said. “I know that matters related to fees and room and board and grades are important, but they aren’t as urgent as these other issues are right now.”
Effective at 4 p.m. today, the ECU Call Center number (737-5100) will shut down. Email inquiries should be directed to COVID19@ecu.edu.