Community colleges rally to support students strained by pandemic

Many community college students already faced hurdles to degree completion before the COVID-19 outbreak, and the pandemic has only exacerbated those obstacles. Before the pandemic hit, just 14 percent of the lowest-income students were earning a bachelor’s degree within eight years of enrollment, according to the Department of Education.

Now, students who were already juggling school, bills, jobs, and family needs are also navigating crowded living environments, child care responsibilities, technology shortages, and the frustrations of online learning. They’re grappling with food insecurity and struggling to pay rent as their families and communities lose work due to the economic downturn. Community colleges are taking a variety of approaches to try and improve these conditions.

Students strained by familial responsibilities, technology shortages

Julie Clark, the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Hinds Community College in Mississippi, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that, when she holds online sessions, she “can sense [students’] anxiety,” adding that “most of them are in kind of a frenzy.” She said she teaches students who now need to simultaneously care for and homeschool multiple children.

Clark also recounted the story of a Hinds student with 10 siblings who lives with his grandmother, depends on food stamps, and lacks any mode of transportation or a cellphone; the college mails him coursework. Mays Imad, who teaches pathophysiology and biomedical ethics at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, says the majority of students in her courses have lost their jobs.

Related: Coronavirus pandemic exposes the digital divide >

Students at tribal colleges and universities are also feeling disproportionate strain. Many Native American students are currently living in overcrowded, multigenerational households, attempting to learn from a shared laptop with unreliable internet access, Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and chief executive of the American Indian College Fund, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. The current educational situation is a far cry from in-person, communal learning styles favored by tight-knit tribal communities.

“Whenever these kinds of crisis situations occur, we fall back on traditional teaching,” Crazy Bull says. “This situation has us falling back in a way that doesn’t honor that.”

Instructors overwhelmed, scrambling to teach

Teachers suddenly asked to provide virtual instruction also are feeling overwhelmed, and many non-tenure-track faculty at community and city colleges are spending time learning new digital platforms without additional compensation, VICE reports. Adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty make up 80 percent of community college faculty; yet, most receive relatively low wages, no health insurance, and no paid sick days.

“We’re being thrown into uncharted territory,” Joan Bevelaqua, an adjunct professor at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland, told VICE. “We’re going to be spending hours and hours reframing our classes to be online without getting paid for it.”

Some worry that the strain on teachers will spill over to students. “Adjuncts are really trying to allay student fears while processing our own,” says Teresa Greene, an adjunct professor at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.

“My college already has something like an 18 percent graduation rate—my worry is that students are going to be frustrated, give up, and never come back,” says Geoff Klock, a tenured English professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Staff train faculty to support students

Staff at teaching-and-learning centers around the country have been working overtime to teach college instructors how to run Zoom meetings, post assignments, and moderate discussion boards.

Clark from Hinds Community College in Mississippi has been working “18 hours a day, seven days a week, to move 800 faculty members, 9,000 students, and 3,700 course sections online,” reports The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pima Community College’s Imad single-handedly runs the school’s teaching-and-learning center and has been coaching faculty who already teach online classes to train fellow faculty members less familiar with the approach. Imad has also held webinars on how trauma can affect learning, and how faculty can help by checking in on students and setting up peer buddy systems.

Similarly, AnneMarie Garmon, instructor at Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina​, is trying to safeguard students’ mental health by helping students connect with her and each other over Google Hangouts, Zoom, WebEx, Calendly, Google Voice, Packback, Kast, and Facebook. “I believe that learning can take place in these settings just as easily as the classroom—we just have to adjust and accept change,” Garmon writes for Inside Higher Ed.

Colleges invest in digital substitutes for disrupted hands-on learning

Jeff Elsbecker, lead instructor in the digital modeling and fabrication program at IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Rhode Island, has been grappling with how to help students who suddenly lack access to studio equipment. To support students, IYRS has extended project deadlines; it also sent students home with a 3-D printer and allows students to send digital files to faculty still at school to prototype in advanced machines and then pick up their designs at their school’s curb. In addition, instructors are using their phones to film practical lessons in the shop, then add the videos to Zoom recordings, says Hans Scholl, instructor of boat building and restoration.

Jennifer Lindon, president and chief executive of Hazard Community and Technical College in eastern Kentucky, is focused on mitigating internet and technology shortages for her students, given the school’s location in one of the nation’s poorest counties. Hazard has spent $25,000 on headsets for instructors, simulation-lab software, laptops, and wireless routers. “We have given almost every laptop we have to students,” she told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We’re doing a calling campaign, trying to call every single student and see what their needs are.”

Schools focus on students’ basic needs to boost retention

Community colleges also are prioritizing basic needs, recognizing that the students for whom food or housing insecurity pose the greatest risk of derailing their education are also those who stand to benefit the most from completing a degree and raising their socioeconomic circumstances. “We know from experience that even small, unexpected expenses can really trip up low-income students and interfere with their likelihood of returning,” Jenna Sablan, an assistant research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Hechinger Report. “Now, with the coronavirus, you have a double whammy of not only new expenses but the likelihood of lower incomes both for the student and their families.”

St. Petersburg College in Florida surveyed students and found a “significant contingent” feeling financial strain from job disruptions. The school is asking faculty to focus on bringing a sense of normalcy to students, distributing information and assistance, and leveraging St. Petersburg’s existing Student Emergency Fund.

“I’m incredibly proud of the community who have stepped up their giving to these scholars in their time of need,” Christian Moriarty, professor of ethics and law and academic chair of the Applied Ethics Institute at St. Petersburg, wrote for Inside Higher Ed. “We’re happy to help them with what we can, such as bills, food, and whatever else that can establish stability and finish the semester strong.”

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