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Education
An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

For NC Colleges, Online Finals, Virtual Farewells And Questions About Fall

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Taylor Robinson
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Taylor Robinson, Queens University Class of 2020, has her graduation cap decorated but isn't sure when she'll get to use it.

As this strange, upended school year ends for colleges and universities across the region, students are starting to take online finals and say virtual farewells. The schools are now planning for an uncertain summer and fall reshaped by the coronavirus. 

It’s final exam week at Queens University of Charlotte, and the rest of the region’s colleges won’t be far behind.

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Credit Taylor Robinson
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Taylor Robinson, Queens Student Government Association president, models her graduation garb.

Taylor Robinson, a Queens senior who’s president of the Student Government Association, had been looking forward to all the year-end traditions: Meeting professors for a farewell at Selwyn Pub. A bonfire on the quad. Displaying the children’s book she created at the final art show.

Robinson says the annual student awards event is normally a dress-up dinner, "like the Oscars in a way." This year it happened coronavirus style: Online.

"A bit less regal," Robinson notes wryly.

Finals And Graduations

Across the nation, students have scaled back their expectations while colleges and universities scrambled to move all their courses and events online.

Short-term, those schools now face two big questions: How to do finals and graduation ceremonies?

Converting to online finals brings challenges, according to Hope Williams of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities.

"Some of them still have timed exams. Some are moving more to some type of 24-hour research essay," she says. 

And a few require proctored exams and can’t go virtual.

"Often those will be in the health sciences, so some of our campuses have moved to an environment where they might have two students alone coming into a room with a faculty member," Williams says. That's time-consuming for faculty but allows for safe distancing.

For students majoring in fields with required internships or clinical work, it’s doubly nerve-wracking to see this year’s clock tick down. As it stands right now, some aspiring teachers and health-care professionals can’t graduate because their field work was canceled.

"And so we have asked the General Assembly to provide some waivers for these students because of course we need our health sciences majors and we need our teachers," Williams says.

A House panel focused on education has drafted legislation to waive the requirement for teachers and school administrators. A different panel is studying health care.

For students who can graduate, the question is, how? Some schools are going with virtual ceremonies in May, while others are promising to bring everyone back … whenever they can.

Jen Johnson, a vice president at Queens, says the school polled the 580 students poised to graduate.

"We got about 312 responses and it was overwhelming that they wanted to hold out, to come back to campus at some point in the future to have a commencement ceremony," she says.

How Long Will This Last?

Robinson, the Queens senior, says her cap is already decorated. And yes, it’s a disappointment to wait for a ceremony. But she says she and her classmates have mostly shifted their focus.

"We’re kind of worried about more what will our next year or five years look like," Robinson says.

Young adults who expected to enter a booming economy are watching jobs disappear. Grad school plans are uncertain – especially for international students, like Robinson hopes to be.

"I’m supposed to be going to graduate school in Scotland, actually," she says. "And I’m honestly not sure if that will be a possibility, if there will be distance learning, if I will be able to go and start my studies or if I’ll have to delay."

Higher-Ed officials are worried about the future too. Many schools  – including Queens and the UNC system --  have already moved freshman orientation online.

And there are questions about who will actually show up for the coming year. 

"We know that with so many unemployed parents right now, and students having difficulty getting the jobs that are a part of their college planning for summer, that there will be challenges," Williams says. The association of private colleges and universities has asked the state for millions of dollars in new scholarship aid.

Davidson College just announced that it will let students defer their fall payment for up to a year.

And of course the big question is: Will it be safe to bring everyone back to live in dorms and attend real-life classes?

Williams says this spring’s conversion leaves schools better prepared to open online if needed – or even to open normally and send students home again if there’s a second wave of COVID-19.

But she dismisses suggestions that the shutdown proved that virtual learning is the college experience of the future.

"I think that the total move to online learning has really shown this to our students and to our faculty and staff, that we really want to have that in-person experience wherever possible," she says.

At Queens, Johnson agrees. She says talking to next year’s freshmen is what keeps her hopeful.

"You know, these are students whose high school senior year has just been upended and is so unexpected, with a lot of disappointment," Johnson says. "They’re really excited to get through this, and just very optimistic about starting their college experience in the way that they always believed that it would be."

She and a lot of other college officials hope they don’t have to let those freshmen down.

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