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'Owl In This Together': Warren Wilson releases plans for fall semester

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News

SWANNANOA - Warren Wilson College has released an extensive plan to both open and remain open for its upcoming fall semester.

Outlined in a 28-page document, the university has listed guidelines for allowing students to participate in an online-only, blended or in-person semester. For those opting for in-person classes, the school says that it will be reconfiguring its classrooms for social distancing.

President Lynn Morton said that she understands the difficulties of returning to school during a pandemic.

"This requires a level of flexibility that some people have never really experienced before," Morton said. "People, just by nature, they want certainty, they want to know 'what happens if this,' 'what happens if that.' We're going to have to make our decisions as best we can with the support of our county health department and [MAHEC]."

The school is asking for faculty and students to opt into a community commitment, “Owl In This Together,” that asks everyone on campus to practice “The Three Ws”: wait, wash and wear. This means that everyone should practice social distancing, wash their hands often and wear a face covering.

Morton said that while widespread testing of students could calm some concerns, preventing the spread of the virus is the school's focus.

"We're going to try really try hard to create a community culture where we're all looking out for one another, and everybody understands that we have a great deal of control over the spread of the virus, just by doing those things," Morton said.

Supplies of cloth masks will be provided to students who need one.

“Blended” courses involve in-person and online components, the document says. Students will also be offered the ability to move from in-person to online-only classes. 

Those opting for an online-only semester, however, will not be able to move to in-person learning until the spring semester.

Morton added that while some students have opted for an online-only semester, they have also requested to live on campus. 

"They don't want to be in a classroom, but they still want to be on our campus experiencing campus life," Morton said. "So the maximum flexibility is truly a hybrid approach."

With an adjusted academic calendar, classes will resume on Aug. 17 and run through Nov. 20. Final exams will be conducted remotely following Thanksgiving break.

Prior to beginning classes, move-in dates and times for on-campus living will be staggered. On arrival, the school will hold a symptom screening and temperature check before allowing a move-in.

A plan for the spring semester will mirror its fall counterpart.

All graduate programs will take place online, with a decision for 2021 to come at a later date.

Committed to prevention and control

Morton says that she has stopped using the word "comfortable" when referring to adjusting to pandemic conditions.

Now, she's focused on using "committed" or "confident."

"I would call it confident that we have done everything that we possibly can and that we are up to it by the nature of our community," Morton said. "We may not be comfortable, but we are committed as a community to get this thing done right."

Morton said that the school will be at the forefront of dispelling any panic from a positive test result.

"We can contain it, we all have plans," Morton said. "Really, where higher education is right now, is on the leading edge of all of this. Containment, prevention and control."

If students become sick, the school has reserved an off-campus “quarantine and isolation facility” at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. Anyone at the facility will be provided a room with a private bathroom, along with meal delivery and health monitoring.

Morton says that the school remains in contact with MAHEC each week to adapt to any incoming advice and support.

"We are hopeful that in Western North Carolina, we will be a case study for how to do this as safely as possible," Morton said.

The “Owl In This Together” plan for reopening was first released June 30 prior to a more in-depth document released July 10.

The currently 28-page document will continue to grow following additional questions from parents, students and faculty.

Warren Wilson initially closed its campus on March 17 before later offering its students a credit, no-credit option for spring semester classes.

Following the cancellation of all summer on-campus activities, the school disbursed just under $400,000 to 535 students from the CARES Act Higher Educational Relief Fund.

In addition to its academics, the private institution also announced the cancellation of all competitive sports for the fall.