Classes start remotely as students continue to move into residence halls

by Chuck Gordon

Today, Wingate University takes another baby step toward a return to normalcy – or at least a close approximation of it.

In-person instruction will have to wait a couple of weeks, but many students are back on campus, and online classes for the fall semester are beginning today for Wingate’s expected 2,655 undergraduates and many students in advanced-degree programs.

Two professional health-sciences programs – physical therapy and occupational therapy – started classes, in person and on campus, earlier this month. But Wingate’s administration decided a few weeks ago to delay in-person classes for other programs until Sept. 8, for a variety of reasons. Still, as of Saturday just over 1,400 students were already living on campus. As has been seen at several large institutions, a crush of students often means clusters of Covid-19 cases. Several universities abandoned plans for in-person instruction soon after students arrived on campus.

To keep the risk of infection-spread low during move-in at Wingate, residential students have been arriving in staggered shifts of no more than 350 on any one day. The Office of Residence Life is working with them to limit the spread of Covid-19. Their message is simple: Voluntary compliance with public health guidelines is the best way to keep the campus open and operating safely.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Dr. Mick Reynolds, dean of campus life.

Residence Life is taking a three-pronged approach:

  1. Educating students about the importance of practicing social distancing, wearing masks, limiting the size of gatherings, etc.
  2. Meeting with students who don’t comply with pandemic-related requirements.
  3. As a last resort, using the Code of Community Standards to remove students who are facilitating risky behavior and flaunting the public health guidelines.

More than 2,000 students have signed the “One Dog Pledge,” in which they commit to doing their part to limit the spread of the virus on campus.

Health protocols

Of course, no system is foolproof. If a student does test positive for Covid-19, the Health Center has protocols in place to quickly isolate the student in one of 45 isolation rooms and to perform contact tracing so their close contacts can be tested as well.

“I’m confident in the plan that we put together and that we have a process that we will follow when and if positive cases happen on campus,” says Sherrie McCaskill, director of the Health Center.

A volunteer checks a student's temperature during Move-In

Wingate is taking a number of precautions to keep the University’s Covid numbers at a manageable level. Students and faculty and staff members are all required to use a Daily Symptom Tracker before stepping foot on campus each day. If someone is deemed at risk of having Covid-19 based their answers to the tracker’s questions, Wingate’s registered nurse, Nick Young, is immediately notified. Young then calls the person and gives them instructions.

Young is now handling Covid-19 responsibilities full-time, including contract tracing. He will be located in Wingate’s mobile health unit, which is parked outside the Health Center, to help keep the Health Center free from the coronavirus.

“Anybody who comes in, even if they need asymptomatic testing or even if they have symptoms and they need to see a provider, all of that’s being handled on the Covid bus,” McCaskill says. “That just helps protect the integrity of the Health Center itself for our general patient population.”

Wingate has a Covid-19 rapid-testing machine but no supplies with which to operate it (the state of North Carolina has seized most supplies to be used in hot spots around the state). For now, Wingate is sending tests to a third-party lab and receiving results within 24 hours, but McCaskill is hopeful of receiving the necessary testing supplies in September. Two other testing machines are also on order.

The Health Center has also hired an additional medical assistant, and professors from the School of Nursing are helping staff the Health Center as well.

In addition, a number of desks have been blocked off in each class in order to limit the number of students, and students will wipe down their desk with provided wet wipes before sitting down and again before they leave the class.

Technology

Total enrollment is expected to be 3,610 this year, including 2,655 undergraduates. Of those, just under 2,000 are expected to be living on campus. All classes this semester will be either entirely remote or offered in a “hyflex,” or hybrid/flexible, model, which incorporates elements of in-class and remote instruction. That might seem tailor-made for some bandwidth bottlenecks, but Steve Shank, vice president of information technology and Wingate’s chief information officer, says bandwidth won’t be an issue.

“Really, the test of whether your network can handle it is in the evenings in the residence halls. That’s when all your streaming services, gaming, Netflix, everything streaming in high-def, that’s the absolute peak utilization of your network,” Shank says. “The investments we put into the Wi-Fi, in the bandwidth, are holding and are really solid. We’re not reaching anywhere near the upper limits of our capacity at this point.”

Aside from a widespread Zoom outage across the country this morning, technology shouldn’t hamper Wingate students’ education this semester. Classrooms have been fitted with webcams so instructors can teach students who are in the classroom and those learning remotely.

Technologywise, Shank says he believes the faculty is ready for the hyflex instructional model. A course on remote instruction was offered by IT Services this summer in anticipation of the need for at least some online learning.

Faculty members have other tools at their disposal, too, such as test-monitoring software that can red-flag unusual activity by students. Professors can also use a “lockdown browser,” in which no other web page or computer file can be accessed on the student’s device during a quiz, test or exam.

And if something’s not working well, ITS plans to fix it.

“We’ll definitely solicit feedback from faculty and students about what worked and what didn’t work,” Shank says. “We’re going to course-correct to make it better.”

Ceremonial kickoff

Traditionally, Wingate welcomes new students to campus with Convocation, an inspirational ceremony that kicks off the academic year. Of course, large gatherings are forbidden at the moment, so this year’s event was broadcast, rather than live.

“The Freedom to Ask” was the topic of the Rev. Mia M. McClain’s message to students, faculty and staff at Sunday’s 5 p.m. Convocation. The first sessions of Gateway 101 classes were held just before the event and included watching both the Convocation and Honor Code ceremonies. 

The Rev. Mia McClain speaks during Convocation

The associate minister of faith formation and outreach at Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, McClain used Acts 8:26-40, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, to spur her audience toward childlike curiosity. She said that like Philip, many of us find ourselves “pushed into the unexpected and unprepared for.” Even so, McClain said, we can choose to “be advocates who ask questions that set us free.” 

Also part of the Convocation service was a litany written by Amy Chilton, visiting assistant professor of religion, acknowledging fear but examining the benefits of choosing hope. The audience also saw brief testimonies by students Christopher Paul and Rania Badran. 

Paul, a member of the Class of 2019 and a first-year physical therapy student, said his faith journey at Wingate included becoming a Young Life leader and helping lead a mission trip to Jamaica. He urged undergrads to “love outside your bubble.” Similarly Badran, a junior biology major and president of the Muslim Student Association, said her best advice was to “listen to someone else’s experience.”

Board of Trustee member Bill Crowder opened the Convocation event by encouraging incoming students to be curious, open and accepting as they begin their college journey. The service also included a word from Wingate University President Rhett Brown.

“Convocation is where community begins in earnest,” Brown said. He said that at Wingate’s historic Baptist roots lie the principles of freedom, choice and volunteerism.

“I can’t think of any better way for us to live together during this pandemic,” Brown said. 

Provost Jeff Frederick offered the benediction, praying for patience and diligence during the hard days ahead.

Aug. 24, 2020