UNCW adjusts to learning during COVID-19


Lauren Wessell

The Seahawk statue displayed at the front of UNCW’s campus.

Veronica Wernicke, News Editor

The threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is still looming as students, faculty and staff around the U.S. headed back to school this month and universities are working to find the best ways to keep everyone safe this fall, UNC Wilmington (UNCW) included.

UNCW has been open for one week now and the university has been working throughout the summer figuring out an efficient and safe way to have students return to campus. 

“The first week of classes went well, and we were encouraged that the vast majority of our students, faculty and staff effectively followed university, CDC and NCDHHS guidelines,” wrote UNCW Chancellor Jose V. Sartarelli. “Our hard work to create a safe and engaging campus environment did not go unnoticed – we received several complimentary emails from students, parents and faculty members commending our efforts…  

We know that it will be difficult for some of our students and employees to adjust from having primarily face-to-face courses and interactions to operating more frequently in a remote or hybrid situation, but we are thus far pleased with how graciously everyone has come together to uphold a sense of normalcy and Seahawk spirit. We understand that this semester’s learning environment is different, and although we would have preferred to see all our students in person every day, we needed to be mindful of balancing our pedagogical approaches with the safety and health of our campus and community.”

To help combat some of the issues that students, parents, faculty and staff have expressed, UNCW has sent out numerous emails and created a Best for the Nest guide which offers resources, breaks down how the university has adjusted to campus to keep people safe and answers questions anyone may have. 

A few specific efforts to keep students, faculty and staff safe this semester include switching applicable classes from in-person to online, requiring face masks on campus, adding signage and rearranging pathways into buildings across campus.

“As this remains a fluid situation, we will continue to monitor our progress, paying close attention to our key safety metrics and make modifications as needed,” wrote Chancellor Sartarelli. “Prior to the start of the semester, many adjustments were made to ensure our students would receive the best possible education in the safest possible learning environments. To do this, we adjusted course modalities to move away from our traditionally primarily face-to-face structure to a primarily remote environment…

We also have processes in place whereby students and faculty can continue to request course modality changes. Our exceptional professional advising teams from across campus have also worked diligently to notify students of any changes to their schedules, as well as how those changes may affect their degree progress.  

Finally, we adapted new protocols for students and faculty who are actively involved in work outside of campus. The Office of Community Engagement and Applied Learning worked with our community partners to help mitigate the risk for students conducting off-campus research at their locations.” 

In an email sent out to students before classes started, the university noted that they are monitoring conditions following UNC Chapel Hill’s shift to remote instruction due to increased positive COVID-19 virus cases.

“We want to assure the Seahawk community that we are doing everything we can to monitor COVID-19 [virus] conditions at UNCW. We are closely observing our campus for similar trends, and we are prepared to pivot to an online modality should conditions warrant.  Most of our students moved into campus housing this past weekend, and our classes are scheduled to begin on Aug. 19. As outlined on our data dashboard, fewer than 10 positive cases were identified last week. As of today, only 10 of UNCW’s 150 quarantine spaces are being used; each one of those is for travel-related quarantine,” as stated in the email.

Chancellor Sartarelli wrote that the biggest challenge UNCW faced in the first week and will continue to is ensuring the safety guidelines are being followed.

“To help meet this head on, we held meetings over several evenings in the first week of classes with all residents of campus residence halls, as well as with all fraternity and sorority life presidents,” wrote Chancellor Sartarelli. “During these meetings, senior leadership and I thanked the students for good compliance with health and safety measures, urged them to be safe when they engage each other and the community on and off campus, and answered any questions they had related to [the] COVID [virus].”

Meanwhile, UNCW professors also spent the summer adjusting and figuring out to best teach their students while keeping health and safety a priority.

“So I’m all online because I teach in the graduate program, but [for] my undergraduate faculty it’s been a lot of work, a lot of prep work in these courses,” said UNCW nursing professor Anka Roberto. “I mean we’re a nursing program so we’re used to face to face and clinical. Students are still doing clinical face to face so we’re used to the mask and the gown and glove thing just because that’s how we’re trained right, if there’s an infectious disease, you wear your PPE. So, that part hasn’t been hard… 

I think just the prepping the extra work and managing a household like, I have two kids in middle school that have gone completely online so one, one that has an IEP and one that doesn’t so it’s just been hard navigating and negotiating time and our students are much more anxious so needing to give that extra TLC to our students, like I’m finding myself recording tips.”

Moving forward Roberto said every Friday she plans to record a video of herself going over a self-care tip so they can put a face behind the Canvas voice and continue to have that human connection which she said is the art of working as a nurse. 

Roberto said most of the extra work she found her colleagues had to do over the summer was just prepping courses for an online environment by building modules into Canvas and limiting face to face contact as much as possible.

“I feel like I’m not as present on campus as maybe some other faculty, so maybe my lens is a little different,” said Roberto. “I mean communication [wise] there’s always room for improvement. And we’re trying our best as faculty to communicate with our students and know what their needs are. Honestly, like time. Time is always hard to get right. This is something that’s out of our control and we can’t even predict what the future is gonna hold…

I mean looking at the modeling of the other state schools could we have gone all remote for the first half of the semester, perhaps and model kind of what the school districts are doing, but I don’t know. Is that the right thing I don’t know. We’re  trying to navigate these uncharted territories and it’s just how do you know what you don’t know because you haven’t been there before. I think they’re trying, honestly, I do think they’re trying to do the best they can and educating staff, faculty and everybody.”

Freshman and other students returning to campus during move-in were some of the first students to experience this new normal at UNCW. 

On a recent UNCW Facebook post, which welcomed back students, some people mentioned in the comments about how they noticed several groups of students not wearing masks or socially distancing on campus. 

“[Before classes started] I picked up my One Card from the Warwick Center and I am really discouraged by how disorganized and unsafe the circumstances were,” wrote UNCW student Sadie Dearing. “Staff members were wearing their masks incorrectly and not covering their noses, 20+ students were gathered into one closed-ended hallway, the spacing and distancing was not subscribed to, and there was no organization as to how people were supposed to leave. I called ahead before I came and the information I was given was incorrect, so I spent about 20 minutes in this closed space while staff frantically tried to figure out what to do with all of us.”

Dearing added that this was not how she had hoped the semester would start.

“I can think of a handful of solutions to these problems, so I’m really confused as to why this eludes UNCW when there has been an entire summer and a whole committee of educated adults dedicated to creating safe solutions for these predictable circumstances,” wrote Dearing.

With move-in and the first week of classes completed, some at UNCW like Chancellor Sartartelli, other administration and Roberto are optimistic about the remaining semester; while others like Dearing and those who commented on UNCW’s Facebook post are still unsure. 

“As faculty, we know that it’s stressful for the students,” said Roberto. “We do, we know that you guys want to go back to normal as do we. I think a piece of advice that I would have for students is faculty are right there alongside you. So, take it easy on us, we are doing the best we can. We’re human right, we’re never gonna do anything perfect, and there’s just such a ripple effect of all of this everyone’s experiencing it differently…

And for me as a trauma, focused person this could be triggering people on different levels and different kinds of playing fields. I imagine the student whose family member has passed away or the student who potentially has somebody in the family that has an autoimmune disorder, or somebody who survived cancer treatment, things like that. Everyone has a different story. So be sensitive to each other, and be respectful to one another because everyone’s coming in from their perspective.”