First Day of Classes: Old Traditions, New Concerns

UNC Senior Class President Chris Suggs takes a selfie at Old Well on the first day of class at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo © Landon Bost 2020.

UNIVERSITY

By Landon Bost

As the sun stepped over the horizon on the first day of class Monday at UNC, senior Jessie LaMasse, wearing a sky-blue shirt, emblazened “CAROLINA” and a mask, pedaled her bicycle to the back-lit Old Well before 6:30 a.m.

The COVID-19 pandemic altered UNC’s most hallowed FDOC tradition: sipping water from the Old Well. But the restless 21-year-old from greater Chicago enjoyed the fun by snapping a selfie in front of the fountain to kick off her final FDOC.

“I’m here because when I was a first-year, everybody was talking about how long the lines were,” LaMasse said. “And so I walked all the way over here to get a picture, and I found no one here. And this is my last FDOC, so I woke up at 6 a.m. — and I did it again.”

LaMasse, however, is not taking her classes on campus. She decided to take her courses online out of concern for herself and her housemate’s health. And she wasn’t the only one who had concerns about UNC’s reopening.

Not long after LaMasse left, UNC Class President Chris Suggs paced toward the steps of the Old Well.

“Last night, I tried to get some rest,” Suggs said, “but anxiety, nervousness, depression, a whole lot of different emotions last night. I woke, couldn’t get any sleep, so I came out to campus early this morning to walk around, and think, and meditate and clear my mind.”

Health was at the forefront of his mind. For him, the university’s most important stakeholders — its students — had been left out of UNC’s reopening plans. And valid concerns from students, faculty and staff had fallen on “deaf ears.”

“Myself and lots of other students have expressed our concerns with the administrators,” Suggs said. “We are fortunate that so many students have decided to move from off campus or stay at home this year, kind of reducing the density of campus. But it was just really unfortunate that our administrators didn’t necessarily hear us the way that we wanted. 

“Because there is no reason that we should have been expected to return to campus en masse like this. So I’m still in conversation with different administrators, and voice my concerns however I can because this honestly is a really reckless way to go about things — for all us to be returning to campus during the middle of a global pandemic.”

In addition to the marked brick paths, new building signs and a hollowed-out campus, the UNC now has Carolina Together ambassadors, in Carolina blue or lime green shirts. They are more than three dozen staffers from Rhino Sports and Entertainment Services, a Winston-Salem-based company that staff Carolina sporting events. Their job is to help students, faculty and staff navigate the changed campus, support physical distancing and mask-wearing, give directions and monitor pedestrian traffic flow.

Carolina Together ambassador and recent UNC graduate Alex Laws poses at Carroll Hall on the first day of class at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo © Landon Bost 2020.

UNC Communications Department Prof. Joseph Megel has taught at Carolina for the past 16 years. For Megel, the university’s reopening plan was confusing and not the most democratic process.

“Had there been a much more democratic working group between faculty, staff and administration, we might have been able to get to sort of a happier medium,” Megel said. 

“I’m not sure how to have done it more democratically, but I feel like there are a lot of faculty members who felt that they were being pushed in places that they didn’t want to. And of course, there’s also some faculty members that get to decide — no, I’m only going to teach remotely, and there are others who feel like they can’t make that decision.

“It’s a complicated situation. … The economics of it is a disaster in any way you look at it. So, we are between a rock and a hard place.”

Megel held in-person class Monday for the only time this semester in his COMM 532 class, Live Performance of the Screenplay. 

After bringing some of his concerns to university administration, he created an innovative way to conduct his class for his 18 performance art students.

“We’re determining some plexiglass between the audience and the unmasked performer,” Megel said. “I knew that in order for this class to work I needed working groups that were smaller than 18 for the space. The space I’m in, we basically had room for everyone to be socially-distanced, but not to do the performance work, which is physical and getting up on your feet.

“And so, I just figured on my own that nine people would work better, and that the other half of class could watch from where they are. Plus, we have these new cameras that we’re bringing in that will be able to shoot the class in a variety of angles.”

Many on campus are similarly trying to make the best out of a difficult situation.

“This is a very unfortunate hand that we have been dealt,” Suggs said.

“It was not anything that was in our control, so we just truly have to make the best out of it. We have to remain optimistic. We have to practice our own social distancing and wear our masks, wear what we can to protect ourselves and protect each other so we can navigate through this thing safely because it seems like those unfortunately in decision-making position haven’t necessarily had our best interests in mind at all times. We’re just gonna have to take care of ourselves.”

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