Interim University System President Bill Roper

Bill Roper serves as the interim University of North Carolina system president.

CHAPEL HILL — University of North Carolina system Interim President Bill Roper said on Wednesday, April 29, that he “expects” the state university campuses to reopen for faculty and students this fall.

“I expect to reopen our campuses for the fall 2020 semester and look forward to welcoming our faculty and students back to their classrooms and labs this fall,” Roper said in a statement. “To do so, we are working closely with our chancellors to chart a course forward.”

The UNC system includes Appalachian State University in Boone as well as other state universities like UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, UNC-Charlotte and East Carolina.

Roper noted that recent data in North Carolina are showing positive trends that suggest collective efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19 are paying off.

“Our institutions have done a remarkable job serving their students during this time of crisis,” he said. “Our speedy adaptation to remote teaching and learning was a necessary and invaluable step to preserve the continuity of our students’ academic pursuits while protecting health and safety.

“But for many in the UNC system, digital learning technologies simply cannot be a long-term substitute for the facilities and community that our campuses provide,” he continued. “The majority of our faculty and students need access to our libraries, labs, classrooms and medical and agriculture facilities to fully engage with their research, teaching, learning and service work.”

In an April 24 update to the Appalachian State campus, Chancellor Sheri Everts said her leadership team was “looking at every option that will allow us to welcome our faculty and students back to their classrooms and labs this fall.”

“Our faculty and staff have been problem-solving numerous contingencies and mitigation strategies, and this work is what will make it possible for us to emerge from our stay-at-home status with solid recovery options in place,” Everts said. “These times call for us to think beyond what we have always done and develop adaptable solutions, and you continue to demonstrate your talent and conviction in this regard. Thank you for your continued dedication as we move toward a return to campus.”

At a Faculty Senate meeting held virtually on April 27, Interim Provost Heather Norris said she has collaborated with Faculty Senate leaders to put together a small faculty team to “think critically and creatively” about options for a safe return to a face-to-face setting that will “ensure appropriate social distancing, maximize safety, limit exposure for those who are vulnerable, and make active learning — particularly for labs, practicums and clinicals — a continued part of the academic experience.”

In his statement, Roper said that positive trends will continue only if the state stays focused and diligent, “which we must and will do.” North Carolina will likely have improved capacity for tracking student exposure and greater access to the tools, materials and supplies that can help minimize the virus’s threat, he said.

Each step the UNC system takes will continue to prioritize health and safety, Roper stated.

“Until a vaccine is developed, many members of our community may not be able to risk teaching or attending in-person classes. The UNC system recognizes the needs of our faculty and staff, our older, non-traditional students (and) the members of our community with underlying health concerns,” Roper said. “We must and we will consider steps to protect these vulnerable populations.”

Roper said that chancellors at each university will have flexibility to determine what local steps they need to take to protect all students, faculty and staff — especially high-risk populations — both on and off campus.

“They will have the ability to put unique precautions in place,” he said. “As examples, some institutions might consider staggered or shortened academic calendars, while others may take action to reduce student density in campus housing and classrooms. Our plans will ensure that students and parents have the tools they need to stay fully engaged with their home institution, safely and with confidence.”

Steps going forward will be contingent on the ongoing monitoring of infection rates and North Carolina’s testing and treatment capacity, he said, as well as the governor’s executive orders and the advice of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and infectious disease experts.

The UNC system was among the first organizations in the state to implement closures of its facilities to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, announcing its decision on March 11, when many campuses, including App State, were on spring break.

“Our efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s threat have been successful because our actions in March were swift and comprehensive,” he said. “The continued success of our effort now depends on approaching our next moves forward with caution, optimism and precision.”

He noted that operations at each institution will not be “normal” for some time, “but, working together, we will all eventually see our 17 campuses once again operating at full capacity, serving as North Carolina’s most vital hubs for teaching, research and service.”

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