Albany Technical College in Georgia made the call in May to offer instruction mostly online in the fall semester.
It differed from the plans many other institutions in the state made. About 38 colleges, both two- and four-years, planned to be fully or primarily in-person for the fall, according to data from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, compared to 23 that planned to be fully or primarily online.
Nationwide, most community colleges are offering instruction primarily online. But technical colleges offer more programs that require some level of in-person training and labs. Most have reduced the capacity of their labs by 50 percent so they can provide distance between students, according to the American Technical Education Association.
Anthony Parker, president of Albany Tech, had a few other factors to consider beyond requirements and recommendations for social distancing, he said. The local community was harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic than others in southwest Georgia.
“With so many people sick, and a few people actually passing away that we knew, we wanted to be as safe as we could when we reopened,” Parker said.
He also knew the college had to make its decision early so it could prepare the campus for the technical instruction that needed to be in-person. The college set up precautions, like temperature testing when people arrive on campus and markers for where people can sit or stand in line, as well as special schedules that separate lab groups into three sections each day.
‘Greatest Degree of Care’
About 26 of the college’s 60 programs can be offered completely online, and the others are using a hybrid model that has students come in small groups for lab work and complete the rest of the work online.
“I’m proud of how our team accepted this challenge,” Parker said. “I’m very pleased at how we worked to protect each other.”
It helped that every faculty member has been required to deliver something online since early 2018, he said. For example, a welding professor may have taught the safety portion of the course online.
The college also didn’t hold regular courses over the summer and instead let students make up lab work and gave time for faculty to develop their hybrid courses. Faculty were also invited to help the college redesign classrooms so they would feel safe upon returning.
“The summer is usually a robust term,” Parker said. “But we were a hot spot in the spring, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t contribute” to the COVID-19 transmission rate.
The college was able to use CARES Act funding, of which it received about $2 million, to improve distance learning and hire lab assistants to help teach in a hybrid model. The college is also providing personal computer sticks to students. The sticks, which are inserted into monitors or TVs, provide internet access so students can check their online homework. The college also waived application fees for students enrolling in non-health care programs and is maintaining a limited capacity for the library and computer labs.
Parker anticipated a drop in enrollment, but so far more students have been enrolling full-time, likely to make up for the lost summer, he said.
Albany Tech plans to continue using this model — hybrid courses with limited lab capacity — in the spring.
“If things change, we can adjust,” Parker said. “You plan with the greatest degree of care that you can.”
While data have shown that state politics seemed to influence reopening decisions for the fall, Parker, who has been president of the college for 25 years, said that wasn’t a factor in his decision making.
“I’m not sure if there was pressure and I just didn’t realize it, but I didn’t feel any,” he said. “To see people that I knew personally pass away from the disease made me need to make sure that we had done everything that we could possibly do.”
The fall also isn’t a diminished semester, he said. The college is offering the same courses, just with a different delivery method.
That doesn’t mean the campus is free of the novel coronavirus. One faculty member and one student in two different programs have tested positive so far, out of the about 5,500 students enrolled at the college.
Both of the programs were closed and held online for 10 class days so the labs could be deep-cleaned, Parker said. Both of the people who had the virus recovered.
There are several reasons this has been an easier process for Albany Tech, though. All of the students are commuters, and the average age of students is 27.
“In many cases, they are making an attempt to change the trajectory of their life,” Parker said. “They tend to take issues seriously.”
It’s a different environment than the one at four-year colleges, some of which are experiencing high transmission rates. Parker can’t critique those decisions because they’re different, but he hopes that everyone takes the virus seriously.
“We have a basketball team. Even before the conference decided to cancel, we decided to forfeit all the games if any were scheduled in the fall and just play after January,” he said. “I just thought it was the right thing to do. But I didn’t have to take into consideration what would happen if we weren’t eligible for March Madness.”
Dallas College also decided in May to have a mostly remote fall semester.
“Everybody reacted to it. Some were surprised, some questioned me, some were a little critical of it at the time,” said Joe May, chancellor of Dallas College, formerly known as the Dallas Community College District. “Quite honestly, it was simply looking at the math, considering the science. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard of a decision.”
Last fall, about 28 percent of the college district’s courses were offered online. This fall, only about 4 percent of their courses were offered in a face-to-face format.
There were several advantages to Dallas’s approach, May said. Students and faculty members were able to prepare for what courses were being offered and in what formats. Faculty received training. The college set up remote supports for students and outsourced some services, like outreach.
There was some pushback initially, he said. Some people thought the colleges could will themselves to return to in-person instruction, and it would work out.
“I didn’t buy that theory,” May said.
May read The Great Influenza by John Barry and asked his leadership team to do the same. The college built relationships with people at medical schools and talked with the county director of public health.
“I wanted our folks to understand that this was serious, that this impacts lives and that we would take it seriously and that we would listen to the experts in this space,” he said, later adding, “I would say for some of my colleagues, it took them longer to come to the conclusion that it’s incompatible to have students back on campus for services and keep them safe. It’s just them finally choosing what we saw as inevitable.”
May was concerned about equity when making the decision, though. Students at the colleges use many services, like food pantries, and take advantage of the campuses’ free Wi-Fi to do work. Some nearby neighborhoods don’t have great access to high-speed internet, he said. But the college’s zip code also has a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 cases.
“We tried to balance that to the best of our ability by opening up certain parts of our campuses so that students can come on a limited basis and access the library and computer labs,” he said. The college has also distributed $1 million in emergency aid.
The decision did come with a cost. The college ordered 1,000 hotspots, as well as laptops, for students when it made the decision. May isn’t optimistic that they’ll receive funding from the state or federal governments to make up for the loss.
“There are not the resources to cover the loss if we really focus on taking care of students,” he said. “That just comes with the territory as we deal with this.”
No Right or Wrong Way
Truckee Meadows Community College’s decision to be mostly online this fall unfurled gradually, said Elena Bubnova, associate vice president for research, marketing and web services for the college in Reno, Nev. But the college built a schedule with enough flexibility to convert to remote learning if needed earlier on in the summer.
Ultimately, the college decided to be mostly online due to the number of cases in its community. A large factor was the state of Nevada deciding to not move into the next stage of reopening in July.
“Anything that has to do with safety and health of students, faculty, staff and the community at large during this unprecedented public health crisis is the right call,” Bubnova said. “Curtailing the spread of infection has to be the priority.”
The college redid its class schedule and provided extra training to faculty for its learning management system. It’s also rethinking how it offers wraparound supports for students and how to improve engagement for students learning online, she said. So far, there have been four positive cases of COVID-19 across the 10,000 full-time students. One case was a student who had recently been in a class, Bubnova said, so the college quarantined the class for two weeks.
Experts say the colleges that decided and planned early on made the right call.
“Community colleges don’t have the resources to prepare both ways for in-person and fully online,” said Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.
They had time to train faculty and staff, as well as address equity concerns, like lack of technology or internet, he said.
It also cut down on the uncertainty for those in the college community, said Xiaodan Hu, assistant professor of higher education at Northern Illinois University. Students had more time to make housing arrangements, if necessary, and the college had time to invest in technologies like Zoom lobbies or kiosks for student services.
The late summer and early fall also brought several natural disasters, such as tornadoes in the Midwest, Hu said. Colleges still making plans were left without power or internet shortly before classes were scheduled to start.
In some ways, it was easier for community colleges compared to four-year colleges to make this call, Kelchen said. They’re not as reliant on housing and dining revenue as four-year colleges, and their student population tends to be locals who likely wouldn’t go elsewhere for college.
But they’re also more reliant on external factors, Hu said. They may have had to wait for K-12 schools to decide their fall plans, or for accrediting boards for programs like nursing to approve online learning plans.
The need to consider so many factors means there is no right or wrong decision for community colleges, said Audrey Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at North Carolina State University and an alumni distinguished graduate professor.
“The difficulty for administrators at any large organization is incredibly complex, and I think the community colleges are even more complex because of the diverse populations they’re serving,” Jaeger said.
Most of these colleges’ decisions were closely tied to the events and needs of their communities, she said.
Online is not always the safest, best option for colleges, Kelchen said, but it takes resources to make in-person learning truly safe during this time.
“But if colleges know they can’t afford to do rigorous testing of a sizable percentage of their campus communities, it’s hard to make the case to be in-person,” he said. “Community colleges can’t afford that type of a testing regimen.”