Community Colleges Prepare for Coronavirus, Distance Learning - Higher Education

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Community Colleges Prepare for Coronavirus, Distance Learning

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With the coronavirus (COVID-19) declared a pandemic Wednesday by the World Health Organization (WHO), office spaces are taking precautions by encouraging employees to telecommute, professional sports leagues are suspending their seasons and national conferences are being canceled.

A little more than 1,200 COVID-19 cases are being reported in the U.S. and there have been 36 deaths due to the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Globally, there are more than 125,000 confirmed cases and there have been 4,613 deaths, WHO reported.

In the higher education sector, preparations are being made to transition into distance learning.

Dr. Steve Robinson

“So much of what we hear and read regarding the coronavirus is alarming and is new ground for many of us,” said Dr. Jerry Corcoran, president of Illinois Valley Community College, in a statement. “We will continue monitoring the situation closely and will do everything we can to lessen the likelihood of it spreading.”

Many institutions across the country have already canceled face-to-face classes and adopted online teaching. However, for community colleges, there is a need to address access and equity concerns among students.

“We know that our campus and our people are very important to our students and it might be the most together, organized part of their life,” said Dr. Steve Robinson, president of Owens Community College. “The routine of coming to a class every day and eating in our cafeteria and having people to talk to provides a lot for some students. And the fact that we aren’t doing a lot of face-to-face instruction and some of our large events are canceled will disproportionately impact some students.”

To transition to online courses, faculty can employ various technology options, including using Zoom, a videoconferencing tool, to host online class meetings, and placing coursework on systems such as Blackboard and Moodle.

In the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD), workshops are being offered to train institutions’ faculty for the remote learning environment and additional resources and guides are available online.

“SDCCD’s institutions are moving rapidly to examine classes, consider the uniqueness of the classes at this time in the semester, the best methods for delivering the instruction, their technical needs and need for support,” said Dr. Stephanie Bulger, vice chancellor of instructional services at SDCCD.

However, what happens to students that don’t have access to technology, WiFi or other resources during this period?

“We are not just assuming that everyone can pull up to a computer with broadband at home because that is not the case,” said Robinson. “We are approaching it with already what we know about equity and we are also benchmarking what other colleges are doing.”

Though a solution has yet to be determined, Robinson said “it is front and center of [their] work” at Owens.

Dr. Stephanie Bulger

Additionally, he emphasized that although courses are moving online, Owens is not closed. The food pantry and clothes closet is still available to students. And for now, students who don’t have access to a computer can work in the library.

Another challenge facing online learning is that not all courses can be completed through a mobile platform.

For example, hands-on courses such as welding are tough to teach online. Though still considering options, Robinson said Owens Community College might consider using social distancing as a way to overcome this barrier. Welding booths are currently around 10 feet apart surrounded with cinderblock walls.

Compared to larger four-year institutions, community colleges often have fewer resources and lower levels of funding.

For example, in an online learning transition, bigger research institutions such as Michigan State University will be able to get more of their online classes up and running faster, according to Robinson.

“We are financially sound, we have the resources to do what we need through this crisis but we will probably not have the infrastructure and resources that the big universities can bring,” he added.

In terms of overall preparation, SDCCD is following recommendations from the CDC, the county of San Diego and the state of California. The district is also urging the community to take necessary precautions during this time such as maintaining good hygiene. They are also increasing the cleanliness of facilities.

“This is a difficult time for many in our community and elsewhere,” said Jack Beresford, director of communications and public relations at SDCCD. “Our focus is on providing as much support and, when necessary, providing flexibility in terms of each individual’s situation. No one really knows the full extent of the impact of the virus. Certainly, some will be impacted more than others. We want to be sensitive to this as we move forward with our mission of providing a high-quality education regardless of the circumstances.”

In addition to overall preparedness on the academic side, Robinson said that college leaders need to get ahead of the stress of this issue.

“I would like to point out people who are working at community colleges are incredibly talented, incredibly resilient but they don’t have unlimited reserves of time and mental well-being,” he said. “One of the things that I’m really concerned about is it’s going to be a long haul and I want to make sure that we manage our people’s emotional well being, social well being and their health.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at swood@diverseeducation.com.

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