The world has shut down, but class is still in session.
That’s the message conveyed by the region’s community colleges, long the go-to education options for working families and individuals striving to better their lives.
When area community colleges started reducing on-campus activities to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in March, like many other learning institutions around the country, they turned to virtual classes. Long a tool in each school’s arsenal, online learning has now become the primary focus of the region’s most affordable institutions of higher learning, which raises concerns about accessibility, engagement and retention.
In Charlotte, Central Piedmont Community College is offering almost all of its classes via the internet, says spokesperson Jeff Lowrance. Programs that require in-person instruction such as welding, auto body and construction, have been suspended until the mandatory stay-at-home orders have been lifted. Only essential programs such as Basic Law Enforcement Training, Emergency Medical Technician training and Firefighting are allowed to meet in person, and even then, classes can only meet in groups of 10 or less.
“Most students have not been on campus since March 3,” Lowrance says, stressing that the college is determined to limit potential exposure to COVID-19 by mandating that people stay at home.
Like CPCC, other community colleges, including Gaston College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, have also pivoted to online-only learning to accommodate their students’ needs. While teachers at these schools rely on varying learning models for their virtual classes, they have one thing in common: Last March, they all realized that the world had changed.
Debora Koo, a Visual Arts faculty member at Rowan-Cabarrus’ Department of Art & Design, was planning a spring break trip to Boston to visit her family when news of the virus’ spread convinced her to cancel her travel plans. Toward the end of spring break, Rowan-Cabarrus extended the break and informed teachers that all classes would be changed to online instruction, Koo says.
“During the school’s transition to online we were required to upload all the lesson plans in advance,” she continues. Koo also posted an updated syllabus so students would know what materials and assignments were required of them. Despite the online switch, Koo says her routine hasn’t changed all that much. Although she’s home-based and teaching via e-mail or video conferencing, she teaches classes at the same days and hours as she did on campus.
Her regular office and advising hours are also unchanged. What has changed is in-person connection, the dynamic between teachers and students, particularly with the formerly hands-on drawing and three-dimensional design classes she’s teaching.
“[It’s] challenging to be as involved in online teaching, and the energy is very different,” Koo maintains. “I have to adjust the ways I motivate and instruct students virtually.”
At Gaston College, Liliya Zalevskaya remembers hearing students concerns about COVID-19 as she prepared for spring break. The art instructor describes a gradually accelerating shutdown of the school’s main campus in Dallas. At first, spring break was extended to March 16 and 17 for seated classes as faculty started moving their classes online. By March 18, the online transition was complete, but students could still come on campus and use labs as needed.
“As the week progressed, we were told that starting Monday, March 23, only essential staff will be allowed on campus and we should plan to get everything needed out of the office,” Zalevskaya says. She was already teaching two online classes, which were unaffected by the digital transition, but her studio classes, Drawing and Printmaking, had to be moved online. Gaston uses Blackboard for distance learning, Zalevskaya continues, but she learned Zoom because she feels it’s easier to use for video conferencing.
“I started phone chat groups with my students and gave [them] my number so that they can text me images of their projects,” Zalevskaya offers. She’s since been trying to make the online assignments more relevant and engaging for her students. “The shift [has been] more towards conceptual and critical thinking.”
Like Koo and Zalevskaya, Amy Bagwell was also on spring break when the shut-down started. The English instructor at CPCC was planning on returning to campus March 16 when she was instructed that faculty were moving classes to all online delivery. The school completed the switch on March 23.
Because Bagwell had been slated to work on Sensoria, CPCC’s now-canceled spring arts and literature festival, she’s only teaching two classes this semester, Freshman English and American Literature. Though Bagwell has taught online before, she misses the energetic give-and-take of the physical classroom.
“I miss seeing and talking with my students,” she says. “Everything takes at least twice as long, and we need to be [constantly] available for students, but what I’m adjusting to is nothing compared to what [the students] are doing.”
Alyssa Saldana, a CPCC student studying Criminal Justice in the college’s Associates of Arts program, attends Bagwell’s English 111 class. She says the online transition was initially difficult for her.
“It took a whole week for teachers to transition everything, and still to this day I’m not quite sure how to work Zoom and GoReact, [which] two of my teachers are having us use.”
The nature of online learning compounds Saldana’s challenges. She describes herself as a hands-on learner who likes doing things in person and face to face.
Because Bagwell is aware that some her students still have jobs, and that many may be busy at different times of the day, she doesn’t require her students to log in for set class times. She sets up assignments every Sunday and her students have a week to complete the work.
The secret of communication, she says, is clarity. Bagwell presents each assignment in an uncluttered manner. In her literature class, she strives to vary the content, though she’s put some of the classroom reading on the back burner. There are two masterful stories by William Faulkner in the class textbook, she reveals, but she’s not going to make the students read them.
“They’re beautiful stories but [with Faulkner] you’ve either got a murdered body rotting in the attic or you have a cruel arsonist father,” Bagwell offers. “I’m trying to curate my selection of texts to avoid things that are going to compound the darkness unnecessarily.”
Bagwell’s point is well taken. Outside the classroom, several students are already confronting dark and uncertain times.
Saldana, for example, has lost an uncle due to the virus.
“He passed away three days after testing positive,” Saldana says. “He was all alone, [and] had no one there with him to say goodbye.”
Compounding her loss, Saldana was furloughed from her job at Best Buy. “[It] sucks because I wanted to go back to work so bad because [the store] is still open.” Her last payday was April 18. She’s currently looking for another job plan while planning to make her car payments for the next two months. “[It’s] to be on the safe side since that’s my most important bill,” she says.
The annual graduation ceremony, normally an occasion when each school’s students and their families can come together to celebrate success and the fruits of their learning, may not be happening this year. While Koo and Zalevskaya attest that neither of their schools have announced the postponement of graduation ceremonies, Koo expects to hear that graduation will, like classes, be moved online.
While CPCC’s spring semester will conclude on time, the school will not be having the usual graduation ceremony, Bagwell says. She fears the development may be another psychological setback for students, teachers, staff and families.
“Graduation is the greatest day of the year,” she maintains. “I swear, that one night sustains me through the entire next academic year.”
Perhaps more concerning is the issue of internet access, which is so crucial to online classwork and the dissemination of information.
Not all Rowan-Cabarrus students have adequate internet connections, Zalevskaya says. Some teachers have turned to additional methods of communication on their phones. “I use texting, Zoom and Blackboard, along with YouTube to share tutorials and have students submit assignments,” she offers.
While Gaston was still making the transition to online classes, students caught a break when Spectrum offered them free internet service, Koo says.
Saldana says she’s fortunate to have a good internet connection, but only at certain times. “There are four of us in my house and we are all working from home,” she explains. With her younger sister also taking online classes, sometimes the Wi-Fi slows to a crawl.
“A lot of work I’m getting back [from students] has been done on their phones,” Bagwell says, though she adds that, for the most part, her students are managing well online.
Bagwell also praises a rapidly implemented program to hand out Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to students, orchestrated by Single Stop. The nonprofit partners with the school to promote student welfare by connecting them to available government and nonprofit programs, benefits and services through a coordinated “one-stop shop” solution.
“Single Stop’s goal is to help our students stay enrolled so that they can graduate and obtain employment that will provide a living wage so that they and their families can have a better life,” says Dena Shonts, CPCC’s associate dean of student engagement. The program, implemented at CPCC in February 2016, addresses students’ needs outside the classroom.
Single Stop connects students with benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, free legal assistance, and tax assistance so they can file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) and access other federal aid such as Pell Grants.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, labs and libraries are no longer an option for students. As a result, Single Stop has seen increased requests for laptops and hotspots, Shonts reports. Request for housing assistance has also spiked.
“Housing has always been an issue for our students and that has only intensified with COVID-19,” she continues. “Our students struggle to find places to live and struggle to pay their rent.”
Single Stop has also seen a significant increase in applications for its Student Emergency Grant, short-term financial support for students facing an enrollment-threatening financial emergency.
“A high number of our students work full- or part-time jobs,” Shonts offers. “Because they are not currently able to work it has been difficult for them to keep up with their bills.”
By keeping students safe and solvent, Shonts and Single Stop have done much to aid student retention, Bagwell believes.
Nevertheless, the economic and health challenges posed by the pandemic have made it increasingly difficult for students to stay engaged and stay in school.
“There have been one or two students in each class who have been struggling with the change to online classes and have dropped a course,” Koo says. She’s concerned that those students may not have felt the same energy and engagement as they did with in-person classes, and their motivation faded. “Some need to focus on jobs and supporting themselves or their families and are working even more hours,” she continues. “Some have not contacted me at all since the move [online].”
Zalevskaya had one student drop because they were working too many hours at a grocery store. She shares that Gaston has extended the withdrawal date for classes until the end of the semester. Also, if a student gets a withdrawal in any class, they can retake the course in fall 2020 or spring 2021 tuition free.
“I meet weekly with most of my students on Zoom, and most are very anxious,” Zalevskaya maintains.
“In my classes no students have dropped out so far,” Bagwell reports. Before the pandemic if a student was out for two weeks straight, teachers would mark them as having stopped attending class. Nowadays those guidelines have been relaxed, Bagwell offers.
Furthermore, she is being proactive by being in contact with her students on a daily basis. Bagwell says she knows her students and they know her, and that in turn has fostered a bond.
“I’ve got 100% retention right now,” she says. “What I worry about is how [my students] are doing outside of school.”
She echoes the concerns of many of her colleagues across the region, citing stories of students doing extra shifts at grocery and box stores before social distancing and capacity restrictions had been implemented, and students putting in 12-hour shifts at hospitals who did not have access to masks for several weeks at the start of the pandemic.
“How are our students and their families who have lost work going to recover financially, when so many were already barely at the margins of getting by?” Bagwell asks. “How are those who are part of the essential workforce going to recover physically and emotionally? What are their lives going to look like in June, September and December?”
The only answer Bagwell has is that teachers will continue to do their jobs.
“The schools can’t solve everything, but I do know we will be here for them.”