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NCCU students face a changed school year during the pandemic

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Despite the uncertainty of this academic year, students, faculty and staff at North Carolina Central University have worked to create the safest in-person learning environment possible. 

Similar to Duke’s, policies at NCCU, a historically Black university in Durham, include a large reduction in the number of in-person classes and restrictions on capacity at all campus facilities. Students are also tested for COVID-19 twice upon arrival to campus and on a rolling basis throughout the semester. Temperature checks are conducted at entrances of various buildings.  

As a result of masking and social distancing protocols, NCCU’s positive case counts are relatively low, with 102 positive cases since Jan. 1 and 152 from July 1 to Dec. 1 of last year. 

In the fall, NCCU was able to stay around a 2% positivity rate for students, and not a whole lot has changed since then, said Kristin Long-Witter, director of environmental health and safety. “If we’ve done anything different, we’ve increased our testing frequency.” 

Long-Witter said the university offers a mix of in-person, online and hybrid options. About 16% of the courses are in-person currently, she said. 

Most of the university’s facilities are open, including the dining hall, library and Starbucks. Students are required to follow the “3 W’s” of wearing a mask, watching their distance and washing hands. 

NCCU also tests students regularly, including commuter students, Long-Witter said. All testing and contact tracing is conducted on campus in partnership with Apex Solutions and the Durham County Health Department.

“I think that’s really helped us keep our numbers low, being able to identify and quarantine and isolate people here on campus where we can manage that,” Long-Witter said. “We’ve seen much better compliance from the students than what I would have thought. They have come back, they do want to be here.” 

For those who don’t follow the rules, NCCU has a zero-tolerance policy, she said. 

“Like everyone, we’re all tired, we’re all fatigued, we all want to go back to normal,” Long-Witter said. “I think we really see that with our students as well,” as usually “college should be this fantastic experience.” 

The administration is still evaluating the summer and fall, keeping in mind a balance between going back to normal and staying safe. 

Maurice Thompson, an NCCU senior and resident assistant, said one of his main tasks is enforcing social distancing. 

“You can only control so much,” Thompson said.  He works hard to encourage students to follow social distancing guidelines and keep them accountable, but at the end of the day, he said he thinks it is up to each individual to make the right choice.

NCCU’s residence halls prohibit visitors and guests, with the rule of thumb “if they don’t stay with you, they can’t be in there with you,” Thompson said. 

“People are sneaky,” Thompson acknowledged. “They’re gonna try to have parties and be college students.” 

He said he knows that “everyone wants to have fun, but we have to think about health first and try to slow down the numbers.” 

Brittany Cowan, a current NCCU senior and co-editor-in-chief of the Campus Echo, the university’s student news organization, said that students selected for pool testing can get their test at the student health building or gymnasium. 

“My dorm has to do mandatory testing this week,” Cowan said.

Students have a three-day period to complete their testing, Cowan said, and a failure to do so results in a referral to the university’s Office of Student Conduct. She acknowledged the importance of being safe and following protocols, but also the struggles of this year.

“It’s a little disheartening, especially for people like me who [are] seniors graduating in May,” Cowan said.

She lamented the loss of both the end of her junior year and all of her senior year, and also expressed sympathy for her classmates who haven’t been around as long.

“I understand a lot of the frustration going around right now, especially for first-year students who haven’t experienced what life at NCCU is really like,” she said. 

Student life amid the pandemic can be especially difficult in the spring term, when students would be attending normally basketball games and Spring Fling.

As for covering this school year as a student reporter and editor, Cowan said that most of the Campus Echo’s coverage has been about the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sports writers, for instance, have been publishing about cancellations related to COVID-19 cases among players. 

“We’re working on several pieces about how freshmen feel and about mental health, because that’s very important as well,” Cowan added. 

The pandemic has also affected the way Cowan and her fellow student-journalists do their work. This year, all interviews are virtual, whereas a typical year would see reporters visiting sources in person, she said.

“It’s something we have to adapt to especially as young journalists during these times," Cowan said.

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