Friday, March 13th, marked the beginning of another regularly scheduled extended weekend for NCSSM residential students, and at first glance, the exodus appeared typical: charter buses lined up; parking lots filled with hatchbacks lifted; and luggage lined up in Bryan Lobby.
But a closer look revealed potted plants and a tiny, single-fish aquarium cradled in the arms of a student going out the door. The extra luggage and the stacks of textbooks made it clear there has never been an “extended weekend” quite like this before.
With the fight against coronavirus sweeping the nation, NCSSM students are now riding out the pandemic in their home communities at least until the end of March, when the administration will provide an update on what happens next. Courses have been moved to a remote teaching and learning model based on the recommendation of the UNC System.
One of the good fortunes of being young is that there is always an element of adventure in an unexpected event. All around campus students were smiling and laughing as they prepared to leave. But with the laughter also came hugs: in the halls, on the sidewalks, by the buses. Way more than when someone is just going home for a few days. An energy of uncertainty enveloped the campus.
Moving through the packed Bryan parking lot was Anushka Deshmukh, a senior from Concord. She and her father maneuvered a red dolly stacked high with her belongings toward the rear of their minivan, then began loading them in. “A lot of us don’t think that we’re going to come back,” Anushka said and lifted another bag into the back.
Sherryann Omoruyi, mother of senior Omar Webster, echoed a similar sentiment. She stood near her vehicle outside Hill House — just one of many lined up along Hill Street — waiting for her son to come out so they could return home to Hope Mills. On the sidewalk, Omar’s younger siblings ran and played.
“Their concern is that this is the last couple of months [of school] and this is happening,” Omoruyi said. “They’re wondering, ‘Are we going to come back?’”
Tyler Foeller, a senior from Winterville, placed bags into his grandmother’s vehicle parked on Hill Street. Had he ever seen anything like this? “Not really,” he said as his grandmother, Pat, looked on.
Though NCSSM is confident that students and teachers alike will rise to the challenge of remote teaching and learning in the interim, it has still never been tried on such a scale, and with such little time for planning. The school declared a week off for students beginning March 16 to give instructors time to make remote teaching plans and share them with the students in their courses.
For biology instructor Jon Davis ’88, the adjustment won’t be quite as difficult, as all of his courses are already delivered online or through interactive videoconferencing.
“For me, it’s pretty much going to be business as usual, at least as far as teaching online is concerned. Those students are already used to learning whenever and wherever they can.”
For residential math instructor Amber Smith, the calculus is a bit different. Though Smith has experience in the digital environment, none of her current courses are set up for remote delivery. The prep time and collaborative nature of the math department, however, will ease the burden, she says.
“It’ll be a challenge to transition … but working with the team I have, they’re very supportive, and we’re doing a lot of sharing,” she says. “It will take time, but it will be doable. I’m very grateful for the week they’re giving us to prepare.”
Responding to the coronavirus has created a dilemma for schools throughout the United States, but NCSSM will manage. Even as the buses pulled away filled with apprehensive students, there were still signs of normalcy on campus. Birds sang in anticipation of spring. Housekeeping made their rounds. A groundsperson trimmed the grass around the oaks on Watts Lawn where graduation is held — but there is no way yet to know what the pandemic will allow.
The last bus in Watts Circle pulled away. Dr. Roberts raised his hand and waved goodbye. “They’re all on the road now,” he said when it was gone. “We’ll get all of our students through this. They’ll get through their courses. The seniors will graduate, and I hope to hand them their diplomas right here on Watts Lawn.”
Across the way a weedeater buzzed.
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