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Upstate colleges prepare for coming semesters

March 25, 2020 by Samantha Swann | Spartanburg Herald Journal

President Giles with 2019 graduate Derique Simon
SCC President Giles with 2019 graduate Derique Simon

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While students are distance learning and answers are few, local colleges are still trying to prepare for the coming summer and fall semesters of two distinct futures — one where they return to campus and one where they do not.

“We’re looking at how we’re going to finish this semester, what impact it will have on summer term,” said Spartanburg Community College President Henry Giles said. “What are we going to do if spring bleeds into the summer? How are we going to handle that and what implications does that have for next fall? It’s all so fluid and flexible that we’re just trying to make decisions as we have enough information to do it, and right now, our information is pretty sketchy.”

All colleges hope that students will be back in classrooms by this summer and if not, by the beginning of the fall semester, all plan to find a way for their students to continue their educations.

“Our hope is, and of course this is unprecedented territory right now, but our hope is certainly that we can open and have students actually on our campus as early as this summer and certainly by this fall,” said Limestone College’s Vice President for Communications & Marketing Charles Wyatt. “We’ll do summer school one way or the other. We offer summer classes, so our intentions were to do some classes online, some face-to-face, but we if we can’t do face-to-face, we’ll certainly still do those classes online.”

Moving to online-only courses until the fall would be an easy enough task for some colleges, for instance, Spartanburg Methodist College exclusively offers online courses in the summer anyway, and representatives from Wofford College and the University of South Carolina Upstate have also indicated that their professors will be ready to continue online instruction. For others, it is a daunting challenge.

“That does create problems when you’re dealing with programs that have labs that are based on students developing skills, manual dexterity skills, whether it’s in the health field or whether it’s an industrial program. At this point, we do not have a way to deliver that instruction virtually so we are hoping to get some leeway on what we will be able to do after April 1,” said Giles. “We’re asking for some guidance on what we can do. We don’t have access to any of our labs, os we are trying to get some leeway to open it up and we’ve asked to allow programs, like nursing and health, to have no more than 10 students at a time in a lab that would allow us to work with small groups in different programs across each one of our campuses. But at this point, we haven’t been given that latitude.”

The school’s current inability to access their labs until the semester is especially frustrating when considering their nursing program. Giles said many nursing students if they were able to complete their clinicals, would be workforce-ready at the end of April. Giles said there is some indication that the governor might be willing to consider allowing small groups of nursing students into school labs to complete their coursework.

“They would be graduating under normal circumstances because they would have completed all of their coursework, including their clinicals, but since we can’t have them on campus, they can’t be getting their work done,” Giles said. “Their work in the hospital right now has closed for the most part. So we’re working with the local hospital here to try to get them to allow us, open up, clinicals. The State Board of Nursing has given some leeway on their guidance for nurses, it will allow more time to be taught using simulators versus hands-on practice in the hospital, but that still requires us to get students into our buildings.”

There are also plenty of smaller concerns that college administrations are thinking about. Graduations, pinning ceremonies and other senior rites of passage have been postponed at colleges throughout Spartanburg, along with other large group events like sports and lecture series. With regard to graduations, all colleges said they were actively looking for ways to safely celebrate the class of 2020, with in-person ceremonies to take place in the future.

“Right now, our main focus is to make sure they do graduate,” Wyatt said. ”

Dorms have either broken up entirely or been reduced greatly.

“None of our students are planning to remain in our residence halls,” said Mary Hurston Zuelke, Marketing Communications Coordinator at Spartanburg Methodist College. “Our Student Development team created a safe, appointment-only move-out plan for our resident students, which will conclude this week.”

Hurston Zuelke said the college will be issuing rebates for the students’ unused room and board. According to a statement from USC Upstate, the university is working with the state’s Commission on Higher Education to address housing and other reimbursements, though no decisions have been made as to how it will be done. Wyatt said that Limestone College, where about 100 students remain on campus, was having to wait to see about what federal funding will be available to know what options they have for reimbursing students who returned home.

At Spartanburg Community College, Giles said, administrators are working to find ways to prevent or mitigate the negative effects that being unable to finish a semester could have on students who receive federal grants.

“We’re past halfway through the term, so it has implications for Pell Grants and financial aid that we’re having to look at to see all the different ramifications it may have,” Giles said. “In some cases, students may end up quote losing money or doing the college money because they dropped out at this point or refunded at this point because the federal government requires us to refund all the money back to them that they paid on the students.”

The hope is that the stimulus bill will have provisions for financial aid recipients.

“We’re looking into it, we’re trying to get as much information as we can,” Giles said.

Fall enrollment is also a major concern for colleges. At Limestone College and USC Upstate, enrollment for the summer and fall semesters is continuing on schedule.

One of Limestone College’s major concerns is recruiting its new freshman class. For both Limestone and Wofford, as a historic college campuses, tours can be a big selling point when it comes to recruiting prospective students, so they are encouraging parents and students to take virtual tours of the campus through the school’s website.

“We’re still doing our normal recruitment of students. We do digital advertising, our steps we do on social media, our recruiters are working,” Wyatt said. “We can’t just show up at high schools and put out a table and brochures; we have to reach out to them virtually, so we’re reaching out to prospective students and getting their test scores and we have an online application and those get filled out every day.”

The college also announced Tuesday that providing SAT and ACT scores would be optional for high school seniors who wish to apply.

The size of colleges’ incoming freshman classes is also in question, said Giles. Spartanburg Community College, he said, is preparing for low enrollment, but hoping for high.

“You would speculate that enrollment’s going to decrease, in all likelihood, because we probably are still going to be dealing with this coronavirus through the summer and fall and maybe next spring,” Giles said. “But on the flip side of that, because the economy is affected so negatively with all of this, historically, our enrollment goes up during times of recession or depression. So you could say it’s going to go up because we’re gonna have more people wanting to get skills and education they know they need but haven’t been able to afford to do trying to balance family, work, college together. So maybe we have more people who decide to take advantage of (unemployment) and go to college.”