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One year later: What community colleges have learned from the pandemic

Stories & Case Studies
March 18, 2021

It has been a full year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and schools across the country entered uncharted territory. From online learning to emergency aid, community colleges have risen to the challenge of continuing to serve as hubs of learning, support, and economic growth during a difficult and unpredictable period. ATD spoke to leaders in our organization and throughout our network about what they have learned and how their institutions have grown in the past year.

Dr. Karen A. Stout

President and CEO, Achieving the Dream

“Our Network colleges recognize that they are not just education centers — they’re hubs for the whole community.”

How did the pandemic set off “cascading crises” of equity and access in higher education?

Last year saw not only an unprecedented public health crisis, but the ensuing economic devastation resulting from the pandemic. Thousands lost their jobs, and — as we have particularly seen at community colleges — had to step away from higher education in order to provide for their families. Deep inequities along race and class lines that have long permeated higher education rose to the surface this year, alongside a mounting and urgent nationwide movement calling for racial justice reforms. More than anything, the pandemic has made clear that there is an urgent need in higher education to intentionally and equitably support our nation’s learners.

How have ATD Network colleges risen to this challenge and responded not only to the immediate issues caused by the pandemic, but also to the underlying structures that COVID-19 has laid bare?

Our Network colleges recognize that they are not just education centers — they’re hubs for the whole community. We have seen extraordinary agility and innovation as every college across the country made the abrupt shift to remote learning last spring. And beyond that, we’ve seen significant relief efforts, with schools providing financial aid and technological resources to students, setting up community food pantries to help those hit hardest by the pandemic, and implementing digital services to ensure that students had the support they needed to continue their education.

How has ATD helped in these colleges’ efforts?

Achieving the Dream serves not just as a resource, but as a connector for the 300+ colleges in the ATD Network. Early on, our team developed a robust program of virtual webinars and learning events designed to help colleges support their students in this time of uncertainty. The online events have been instrumental in allowing college leaders not just to hear from ATD, but to learn from and collaborate with each other. Our coaches have also adapted alongside the leaders they work with, providing agile support that responded to the immediate crises our educational leaders were tackling head-on.

Dr. Julia Philyaw

Associate vice president, Center for Teaching Excellence & Learning, Broward College

“This year has challenged many of our assumptions we have made and held for a long time about the teaching and learning space.”

How has your college adjusted to the new temporary “normal” of online learning? What is going well and where do you still see room for improvement or support?

Online, blended, and enhanced courses are not new to the college and in fact, Broward College has been a leader in this space for over two decades. However, we were in an unprecedent time and needed to rapidly shift close to 5,000 sections into a fully remote learning environment. This shift was not only a challenge from a curricular standpoint but also from an instructor and student readiness perspective. Our faculty and students have shown their resilience and dedication. One of the greatest “benefits” to come out of this situation has been the opportunity (albeit necessity) to engage previously reluctant faculty to the world of online and blended learning. There is so much magic that happens in a classroom and we have been able to show faculty that even in an online/remote space, you can cultivate the same level of community, support, and rigor.

If courses at your college cannot be taught online (technical training, etc.), have you been able to return certain students to in-person learning?

Yes, starting in Summer 2020, we strategically and safely started to return the workforce education courses that could not be offered in a remote setting back to the campuses. At all times, we have been following and adhering to the CDC guidelines for social distancing and other requirements. We gradually began offering more courses on campus each term (Fall 2020 and Spring 2021).

Are there parts of teaching and learning that should stay in place to help students succeed post-pandemic? What are they and why?

Moving forward and when we fully “return to campus,” we are considering all options including retaining the services and modalities that are working well and supporting student engagement and success. This year has challenged many of our assumptions we have made and held for a long time about the teaching and learning space. We plan on building on the momentum of the good that has risen during this time while also reflecting on and learning from the areas of improvement that have also surfaced. We are excited for the opportunities that lie ahead.

Shara Davis

Strategic data and technology coach, Achieving the Dream

“College leaders are looking at this through an asset-based lens, which is motivating positive change.”

What types of support and coaching have you been providing college leaders that is specific to the pandemic, or was at least less prevalent before?

I have spent the last year connecting ATD Network colleges with each other to help move their student success agendas forward. This is easier to do via Zoom/Teams sessions! As a coach, I will do more of this going forward. As an example, last spring/summer when many colleges were scrambling to shift to virtual, I learned that the Maine College System had created a robust online orientation, so I connected them with other colleges I coach, including a tribal college. The tribal college was able to literally borrow the Maine Brightspace shell to help propel their own work, thereby saving them precious time. The tribal college then shared this with other tribal colleges via a formal webinar offered by ATD.

What can college leaders and educators learn from this continuing crisis that they can apply to future challenges?

Within teaching and learning, many adjunct and full-time faculty have described how they took time to reach out to students one-to-one or in small group settings virtually to determine any challenges in their lives that might prevent academic progress. Both students and faculty have described deeper relationships with students as a result. Prior to the pandemic, it was difficult to get faculty to do this proactive, personal outreach to students. Hopefully this will be sustained going forward.

Will colleges ever go back to “normal”? How can educators re-imagine a future based on what we’ve learned during the pandemic?

College leaders are carefully considering what has been learned and what they will preserve going forward. Hybrid approaches are likely to prevail. Many are saying that crisis spurs innovation! They are looking at this through an asset-based lens, which is motivating positive change.

Vickie Lock

Dean of student success, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC)

“During Spring 2021, NWTC has checked out 842 laptops and 173 hotspots to students.”

Tell us how you saw enrollment numbers changing at your institution in fall 2021, particularly in regard to different student identities and demographics.

Like many colleges across the nation, new student enrollment decreased the most drastically in the fall of 2020. The largest decreases were in traditional aged college students (ages 18–20, or recent high school graduates) and underserved students (Native American and Black/African American). The college offered no-risk enrollment which allowed students to try a program for a week at no cost.

How has your institution worked to help ensure students can continue their education?

NWTC helped ensure access to technology by providing laptops and hotspots for check-out: During Spring 2021, we have checked out 842 laptops and 173 hotspots to students. Regional locations also provided access points for rural students and wi-fi was added to all parking lots. Essential hands-on labs — such as nursing skills training or welding courses — began again in the summer of 2020 following CDC guidelines with hybrid and online formats used for the lecture portion of the course. We also made sure access to all support services was available virtually, and in-person by appointment beginning in the Fall of 2020.

What parts of new outreach have you changed or instituted that you will keep in place after the pandemic to help reach students?

I expect a combination of virtual and in-person support services will be maintained. The increased number of instructional modes will provide more flexibility for students who cannot come to campus, such as students commuting from longer distances, or those with work or caregiving responsibilities. Virtual labs and simulations will allow the college to increase capacity in some programs and offer students in rural locations flexible options to complete their degree.

Dr. Richard Sebastian

Director, open and digital learning, Achieving the Dream

“The disruptive shift to remote learning was a stress test for higher education.”

How has the conversation and awareness around Open Educational Resources (OER) changed during this massive shift to remote learning?

In an effort to build good will at the beginning of the pandemic, many traditional publishers temporarily “opened up” their content: Paywalls came down and they gave free access to some or all of their digital content. Ironically, this helped increase interest in OER when the paywalls went up again a few months later, because the walls became more visible and the contrast between that content and OER quite stark. For traditional publisher content to be useful during the pandemic, it had to become more like OER.

How has OER helped more students access education? (Which students?)

OER is free to students, so students in OER courses don’t have to choose between paying for books, food, rent, or childcare. They can use the cost savings to enroll in additional courses and need less financial aid and accrue less financial aid debt. However, because many colleges still offer a limited number of OER course sections, they fill up quickly, often before the students who could benefit the most from them can enroll. Colleges need to be intentional in ensuring that the neediest students know about these courses and have an opportunity to enroll in them.

What should colleges continue using/doing even after instruction is able to return to a pre-Covid “normal”?

The disruptive shift to remote learning was a stress test for higher education, exposing not only the deep societal inequities experienced by many students, particularly students of color, but also how the structures of higher education exacerbate rather than alleviate these inequities. Post-COVID, colleges need to invest in solutions like OER that serve students and help close these equity gaps.

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