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NC Universities And Colleges Outline Pandemic Needs To State Lawmakers

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North Carolina's higher education leaders met Thursday with a House panel studying the effects of COVID-19 on education.

Student teachers can’t graduate because schools closed. College students who can’t go home are living on mostly empty campuses. High schoolers who would normally be touring campuses now are living in isolation and uncertainty.

Those were just a few of the challenges outlined by North Carolina's higher education leaders when they met Thursday with a House panel studying the effects of COVID-19 on education.

Leaders of the UNC system, the community college system and an association of independent schools all say they’ve moved most of their classes online – and most of their students out of dorms. The exceptions include students who can’t go home because they live in coronavirus hotspots or locations that have blocked travel, as well as students who have no home to return to or no internet access where they live.

"We went from about 65,000 students living on campuses to today 3,250 are there," said Bill Roper, interim president of the UNC system (see his presentation here).

Community College System President Peter Hans said some public safety classes are continuing in person, following CDC safety guidelines and with the consent of students and faculty involved (see his presentation here).

"We prepare thousands of nurses every year. And thousands of first responders every year," Hans said. "We felt like this pipeline was needed now perhaps more than ever."

Hans asked the legislators for $25 million to be set aside for critical needs before June 30, and noted that community colleges will be crucial to helping employers and workers rebuild when the economic crash ends.

Roper and Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, asked lawmakers to lift the requirement for would-be teachers and school counselors to complete an internship before graduating. Seniors who were student teaching when schools closed can’t complete that work.

"That is a huge issue and I do not think I can overemphasize the anxiety that our seniors have right now because they know that they that they cannot meet the requirement that would allow them to graduate," Williams said.

Legislators did not respond. For now they're gathering information about all the legislative changes that may be needed to help K-12 and higher education cope with the pandemic. They plan to make recommendations when the General Assembly convenes April 28.

Williams asked the state for $71 million in new money to help the private schools survive the COVID-19 changes, including increased scholarships and other aid to students (see her presentation here). She said stay-at-home orders are throwing colleges and families into turmoil during the peak time for tours and decisions.

"And we’ve had to cancel all of those tours and visits and all that, so we’re in a position now where students are normally supposed to tell a college by May 1if they’re coming," she said.

All of the speakers acknowledged that the federal relief package includes aid to higher education, but said it remains unclear how much that will help.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.