INSTITUTE, W.Va. — With uncertainties about health, finances and enrollment at many higher education institutions around the country, West Virginia State University Interim President R. Charles Byers said he feels comfortable leading during this period.
Byers, named to the post in May, has worked at West Virginia State University (WVSU) for more than 40 years and said he is confident that the institution will make it out of the COVID-19 pandemic strong.
The first major decision Byers made as leader was shifting the fall academic calendar. WVSU recently announced the semester will begin on Monday, Aug. 10, and will conclude on Friday, Nov. 20, prior to the university’s Thanksgiving break.
Finals will take place the week of Nov. 16-20, and fall commencement is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 21. The previous calendar planned for two weeks of school after Thanksgiving break and starting the semester August 17.
“Many of our students are from other locations and we do not know what the climate for COVID-19 will be for the fall. So when our students would break for Thanksgiving, we did not want them to return to campus,” Byers told MetroNews.
Byers said the school is in the middle of putting together specific reopening plans when it comes to precautions and requirements.
The interim president arranged 24 subcommittees of a couple of members of faculty and staff that had a week to come up with concerns and recommendations for reopening the university.
From there, the ideas were submitted to a 21-person campus-wide committee consisting of WVSU leaders including but not limited to the vice president, associate vice president, academic deans, and director of security.
Byers said the large committee met on Monday to narrow down the plans and will turn it into the final reopening plan for WVSU. Alumni and area leaders will also look at the plan to give the school “a different perspective.”
Definite changes will include a reduced number of students in suites in the dorms and student-athletes not beginning practice until August 17, Byers said.
Byers said current students and faculty are pushing to get back to the classroom. He said there have been negative comments from both parties on the online learning that has taken place during the pandemic.
“The majority of our students prefer face-to-face instruction as well as our faculty. We are also taking several precautions at the beginning to make certain that when we bring our students back it will be safe,” Byers said.
Byers called the plan to come back to campus from what would be a 5-month absence “Plan A” but told MetroNews his backup plans are for a hybrid of online and in-person courses as well as all online courses.
He also said that WVSU is coming up with plans should the school lose 20 to 25 percent enrollment in the upcoming academic year. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that WVSU projected losing roughly between $4.5 million and $5.6 million in those circumstances.
Byers said the school received $3.1 million in COVID relief money and it will be used to improve infrastructure to get WVSU through this particular period. He does not anticipate layoffs and drastic changes in delivery of instructions
“During the next several weeks when we meet in cabinet, we will then talk about what we will do should it occur,” Byers said of potential enrollment drop. “But at this point we are thinking positive because we are pretty much flat.”
The interim president said that on Tuesday the HEPC reported that WVSU is ‘flat’ in student’s intent to come to campus, with around 68 percent of students that were enrolled last year already registeried for classes for 2020-21.
WVSU is expecting around 250 first-time freshmen, down from previous goals of 400. In 2019, there were 271 first-time freshmen at WVSU.
“We are creating an active recruitment campaign to bring students here,” Byers said. “Especially students in the Kanawha Valley who may not want to venture too far home that they are welcome to come to West Virginia State University.”
Following fall commencement, students would then not return to campus until the start of the spring semester, scheduled for Jan. 19, 2021.