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WCU Students Return To Campus With New COVID-19 Rules


The first day of class for most UNC System schools is August 17. BPR spoke with a Western Carolina University student who already contracted COVID-19 as school officials set out new policies to address the pandemic.

Miranda Curtis is from Murphy. She’s a hospitality and tourism management major at Western Carolina University. Right now she’s rethinking that career path... 

“I mean it seemed like a good major before all of this started,” says Curtis, who is 23-years-old.

Curtis spent the summer working at Brio Tuscan Grill at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and taking online classes at Western while living in Cullowhee. About a month ago she started having a constant headache – that’s when she tested positive for COVID-19. 

“I couldn’t breathe a lot. My friends would call me on the phone and I just wouldn’t even be able to get a sentence out because I was so out of breath,” says Curtis.


She’s okay now but still isn’t sure where she caught the coronavirus. Harrah’s announced a COVID-19 outbreak in July but Curtis thinks it could have happened during a night out in downtown Sylva.

“So I was having to do my online classes while I had the coronarona. So I’m going back next semester but I’m worried,” says Curtis. 


Western Carolina students began moving into the dorms last weekend. There will be about 3,500 students in those dorms when classes start on August 17.  There should be almost 800 by Wednesday afternoon.  


“Hi, I’m Chancellor Kelli Brown and together we can prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus and in our community..”  


That’s part of a video introducing the school’s Catamounts Care program which outlines some of the rules students are asked to follow including wearing face coverings in public spaces and being physically distant when possible.  The university is also providing face coverings and hand sanitizer.

Vice chancellor of Student Affairs Sam Miller says these new policies are difficult to implement in a space that is designed to bring students together such as a college campus. He says roommates will be treated as a family unit. 

“The COVID-19 disease and prevention strategies really impact those experiences and make it more difficult to do some of that peer-to-peer learning that is so very powerful and that students value so highly,” says Miller. 

Like many UNC System campuses, students and staff were not tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus. Miller says the process would not have been effective because it only provides information at the moment of the test. COVID-19 tests are available on campus, and if students test positive they will be asked to go home says Miller. 

 “We're going to ask students to go home to return to their permanent residence and be with their family and be near their primary care physician to help take care of them,” says Miller. 

If that’s not possible, Madison Hall has been designated as an isolation dorm. All of the rooms are now singles and have private bathrooms.

Last week, there were over 6,000 COVID-19 cases associated with college campuses nationwide, according to the New York Times. Many were associated with summer athletic programs.  Seven out of 145 athletes and staff at Western Carolina tested positive after summer training.UNC-Chapel Hill announced 37 players and staff out of 429 were positive at the beginning of July. 

“Students - just like everyone else and our communities - are experiencing the COVID-19 illness and the coronavirus is here in our communities and is spreading,” says Miller.

Western is currently on track for over 12,000 enrolled students for this semester.  Miller says that the majority of students come from Wake and Mecklenburg Counties and the Western region near the campus. Last week, in Jackson County about .9 percent of the population tested positive for COVID-19 while nearby Macon County had about 1.2 percent - both are higher than nearby metropolitian Buncombe County.

As of right now Western Carolina has not promised to give back fees if students are sent online but that they have not ruled out the possibility that fees will be returned. Here's the full policy. 

There are over 1,500 faculty and staff at WCU. Some have expressed concerns anonymously about hybrid-instruction which will teach students both online and in socially distanced classrooms. Some classes will be fully online. One person told BPR: I’m definitely really scared I wish I could quit but a lot of places aren’t hiring right now so I’m going to stick with it and just keep myself as safe as possible. 


Mike Beyers is the vice chancellor of administration and finance. He says the university is hiring the equivalent of about 25 new workers through temporary work and contracted services to clean facilities.Additionally, they are hiring an outside cleaning company that would be in charge of sanitizing any space where someone has tested positive for COVID-19.

“There's no way to do that with the existing level of staff, we're adding additional temporary housekeeping services to supplement everything in order to accomplish those extra duties,” says Beyers. 

Beyers says faculty, staff and students will we asked to wear face coverings.  


"It is our expectation at Western Carolina University, that if you are on campus then you will be wearing a face covering or you will be asked to leave. There won't be a hall monitor set up to watch this. We think this will be a self-policing activity," says Beyers. 


In March, faculty and staff who were not able to work because of COVID were paid 100 percent. This went down to two-thirds pay in June and became one-third onJuly 1.On August 1,that ended.

Just over 50 percent of the workforce is back on campus.  The rest are still working remotely. That will change as students move in and classes start back. 

Miller has this message for Jackson County residents as students return to campus:


“I would tell our colleagues and friends and neighbors here in Jackson County, that our students are trying to figure it out too. And will appreciate being reminded to practice the prevention expectations we have for when they're on campus and out in the community as well.” 


Miller says that the WCU community will need to take care of each other and work together this fall. 


 “Hopefully we will make it to the end of the semester and celebrate and get a few chances to shout, ‘Go Cats!’ along the way.” 


Classes at Western Carolina University start August 17.


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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