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Residence halls close at WCU

Junior nursing student Ashlee Owens (in purple) enjoys some takeout barbecue with          her mother, uncle and cousin after an unexpectedly early move-out from Western Carolina University. Holly Kays photo Junior nursing student Ashlee Owens (in purple) enjoys some takeout barbecue with her mother, uncle and cousin after an unexpectedly early move-out from Western Carolina University. Holly Kays photo

When the spring semester began, Western Carolina University’s residence halls were home to 4,106 students, but those students found themselves required to move out two months early as coronavirus concerns heightened on campus. 

“Effective Wednesday, March 18, and until further notice, students who live on campus must either remain at their permanent homes or return to those homes unless an exception is granted by the university,” read a campus-wide letter from Chancellor Kelli. R. Brown sent around noon Tuesday, March 17.

Things moved quickly for the students after that. The March 17 notice stated that everyone had to be out by 11:59 p.m. Saturday, March 21, preferably with their belongings. However, dorms will remain open through 5 p.m. May 8 for students who receive special permission to remain on campus or need to return to pick up the rest of their belongings. 

On the afternoon of March 19, junior nursing student Ashlee Owens could be found sitting on the porch of Haywood Smokehouse in Dillsboro, eating takeout barbecue with her mom, uncle and cousin, who had come up from Charlotte to help with the move-out. Owens didn’t have much to say about the whole experience — for now, she was focused on getting back home to finish up her classes and hopeful that normalcy would resume in the fall. 

“I’m sad for her not to be able to finish out the semester,” said her mother Sarah Owens. “I work at a college too, so we’re doing the same thing at home. But I’m definitely glad to have her home though.”

Owens is one of the lucky ones — she has a family to return to, within driving distance and able and willing to come move her out. WCU granted some exceptions to the dorm closure announcement for students who don’t have that luxury. These exceptions were granted to students who are international students, homeless or experiencing some other hardship related to a lack of permanent off-campus housing, taking academic courses that require meeting in person, or experiencing other extraordinary circumstances, which were reviewed on a case-by-case basis. 

At this point, WCU expects that in-person classes won’t resume before the semester ends. In fact, last week the university announced that spring commencement ceremonies originally scheduled for May 8-9 will be postponed, with a rescheduling plan to be announced by April 3. Decisions about summer courses and activities will be announced by that date as well — summer study-abroad programs have already been canceled. 

Out of its more than 4,000 residents, the university received 225 requests to remain on campus. Of those, 224 were approved, but 58 were only temporary extensions. Those 58 students will be allowed to remain on campus past the general move-out deadline, but not for the entire semester. Currently, on-campus students remain in their originally assigned rooms, but WCU is in the process of evaluating how best to consolidate those students while still allowing for proper social distancing. Some students will likely be relocated to different residence halls so that some of the facilities can close down. 

Jim Dean, director of the on-campus Homebase Campus Ministry, which focuses on students who don’t have a family support structure, said that he was initially quite worried about how Homebase students would fare as the Coronavirus Pandemic unfolded. But his worst fears went unrealized. 

“I think the university has stepped up pretty well for at-risk populations,” he said. 

So, too, have the students. In past years, anywhere from five to 12 students have stayed at the Homebase building over spring break, often because they don’t have a home to go back to while school is out of session.

“A lot of students just picked up the ball and picked up the slack and said, ‘Hey, come home with me,’” said Dean. “And so we didn’t have anyone stay here over spring break, which is amazing. “

Few Homebase students live on campus to begin with, and this is a prime example of why, said Dean. If you’ve grown up with housing insecurity, the last place you want to live is a dorm building where you’re required to move out at various points every year. So, most Homebase students live off-campus and retain their housing despite the residence hall closure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not suffering hardship. Restaurants are closed, off-campus and on, and the jobs those students depended on to pay the bills have in large part evaporated. 

“This week we’ve had 15 students come in for food, and we’ve also had probably 10 students come and leave food,” said Dean on Friday, March 20. “I’ve seen really, really great stories of students who are looking out for their fellow classmates.”

For now, Homebase is switching to an on-call schedule. To pick up or donate food, clothing or hygiene supplies text Dean at 828.508.0035. Students can also contact Dean to find out about availability of emergency housing. 

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