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Warren Wilson opens spring semester with first on-campus case

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
Warren Wilson College started its spring semester with one active COVID-19 case.

Warren Wilson College opened its spring semester with its first on-campus case of COVID-19. Vice president for student life Paul Perrine says the school has prepared throughout the fall to better counteract the spread of the virus.

The private institution held a round of exit testing at the end of its fall semester before a round of entry testing on Jan. 19. Testing identified a positive case on Jan. 24, and the school says it’s conducting contact tracing while the student isolates off-campus.

“One of the goals we have is to be able to gain insight as best we can with the use of entry testing on the presence of the virus on campus, while also making sure that our community doesn’t become complacent with following the policies,” Perrine said.

Warren Wilson recorded zero on-campus cases throughout its fall semester.

Perrine added that the testing “did identify a couple of positives” from students who returned home to quarantine. A Jan. 28 update from the school notes its contact tracing identified 23 students who are now in quarantine.

Of the 23, 14 are staying at Warren Wilson’s “quarantine and isolation facility” at YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. The other nine returned home.

All students at the facility are provided a room with a private bathroom, along with meal delivery and health monitoring.

All students at the school have access to an “increased telehealth presence” where students can seek out counseling or speak with a medical professional. The added counseling has been a “good success” with students, Perrine said.

Student ambassadors

Warren Wilson is facilitating a Student Health Ambassador program in collaboration with other Western North Carolina colleges to better assist with on- and off-campus virus prevention.

Ambassadors perform antigen rapid tests, used for faster screening testing in higher-risk settings like a university, send out emails with “inspiring ideas” and fact-based safe practices and “push positive information and facts on social media.”

Other responsibilities for ambassadors include weekly “Decompression Sessions,” regular training held by MAHEC and the delivery of food and self-care kits to those in quarantine.

Paul Perrine says the school's Student Health Ambassadors help its virus prevention efforts.

“Just knowing that we have a group of students who are also as busy as other students that have taken this additional responsibility, they’re a great group of folks, great group of students who will want to help their students get through this, because this is difficult for everybody,” Perrine said.

The student-ran group solicited questions from students about the school’s health protocols to ask Perrine and the school’s Pandemic Response Team. SHA aided in implementing county guidelines on the campus, Perrine said, while pushing out an “interview webinar so that they can see.”

Bassam Shawamreh says the five-student program functions as a team, while as a student, he tends to “wear a lot of hats.” Being on campus, social interaction has changed.

“Not only professors and students, but in general I think all humans have developed a new reluctance toward each other,” he said. “It isn’t personal by any means, but everyone that we physically come into contact with may be a carrier of a dangerous virus, and that’s unsettling for all of us.”

Warren Wilson closed its spring semester in 2020 on March 17 before later offering students a credit, no-credit option for classes. Students moving onto campus in the fall worked with staggered move-in dates and times.

Final exams were conducted remotely following Thanksgiving break, with classes ending Nov. 20. In addition to its adjusted academic calendar, all athletic events were canceled through March 1, 2021.

Warren Wilson College's Student Health Ambassadors at a meeting.

Shawamreh, who says he would go to the school’s gym five days a week, now no longer uses that space. The gym is “technically available” now, “but I prefer not to go.”

Students are allowed to participate in an online-only, blended, or in-person semester. Those working with in-person courses will attend in classrooms reconfigured for social distancing.

“Blended courses” involve both in-person and online components, while students are also offered the ability to move from in-person to online-only courses.

A biochemistry major, Shawamreh has a majority of in-person classes. His professors are “bringing their A-game,” he says, and when they have to meet virtually, “it is tolerable.”

“This is certainly untrue for many of my peers who meet virtually more frequently,” he says. “I am lucky.”

The final day of spring classes is April 26. Final exams start April 30, with the semester concluding May 4.

Both Shawamreh and Perrine say the school is focused on maintaining school safety.

“I don’t know what the right word to say it’s like," Perrine said. "There’s a steady uneasiness with it that I think that we know that those cases will be there, we know we’ll identify them. It’s just wanting to keep people safe as much as we can.”

School faculty and students are “more comfortable with learning how to manage and deal with it,” Perrine added.

The added Student Health Ambassador program adds another level of comfort.

“I’ve long since said that that is the hallmark of our students (here), that they are incredible leaders,” Perrine said. “On the one hand, it’s great to have the students really take leadership opportunities in leadership roles. On the other hand, it doesn’t really come as a surprise.”