Lingering challenges with distance learning

Information technology staff and student workers at Hartnell College distribute Chromebooks to students who lack reliable computers for online learning. (Photo: Hartnell College)

Rural colleges adopting distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic face the same challenges as other two-year colleges, as well as some unique ones.

In the short term, making sure all students have adequate computers and internet access is a priority, according to interviews with rural college leaders. Long term, the biggest issues are future enrollment and funding. While money from the CARES Act will provide some needed funding, rural college leaders are concerned about the future viability of their economic base.

Mohave Community College (MCC) in Arizona “had a smooth transition, thanks to our dedicated staff and faculty,” says President Stacy Klippenstein.

MCC made the decision to go online early, before there were any COVID-19 cases in the county, Klippenstein says. “We were just trying to be proactive in setting up a safe environment,” he says.

Some healthcare students only had a week or two left to finish their clinicals, so a few medical providers allowed them to complete their work with safety precautions because the need is so great.

Mohave Community College nursing students and instructors help at local health institutions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: MCC)

Several science labs and career and technical education (CTE) courses were easily converted to an online format, Klippenstein says. But hands-on CTE courses, such as welding and HVAC, were postponed. Students will receive an incomplete grade until they can come back and finish the labs in person.

To ensure students could access online courses, MCC distributed refurbished, older laptops. The college also set up a call center available 24/7 in case anyone has a problem.

The college canceled all eight-week courses, which involved 60 to 70 CTE courses. That’s unfortunate, Klippenstein says.

“We’ve been working hard to meet industry needs in the county. Now that had to shut down,” he says.

Reading tea leaves

MCC had a few withdrawals, but not as many as he expected.

“So far we’re seeing good movement” in registration for the summer session, which will be all online, Klippenstein says, but fall enrollment is likely to drop.

Before the pandemic hit, MCC was expecting $1.2 million as part of a new rural college CTE initiative. But the state legislature subsequently scrapped all new programs.

Arizona expects a big decline in state sales tax revenue as a result of the economic fallout from the pandemic, Klippenstein says, and that will affect the college’s operating budget. The MCC board was looking at a tax proposal that would have provided more funds from the local tax base, but it is not likely to move forward on that now.

MCC is expecting just over $1.9 million from the CARES Act. Most of the funds will help students with tuition and other needs. The rest will offset the college’s expenses for online instruction and the loss of 800 credit hours from the canceled eight-week session. MCC spent more than $400,000 for IT work, such as ensuring faculty has access to Zoom and VMware.

No internet access

One of the major challenges for Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) in Virginia is helping struggling students access the internet. In one example, President Kristen Westover describes a student who lost her job at Cracker Barrel and couldn’t afford gas for the hour-plus drive to campus to take advantage of the college’s free wifi.

MECC got her connected with broadband access, and for other students living on the fringes of MECC’s service area, the college worked with banks to set up hotspots in their parking lots.

“We’re trying to keep our students connected; we know how hard it is to come back once you stop out,” Westover says.

When the college reverted to distance learning, “students who were doing well are continuing to do well. Those who were struggling continue to struggle,” she says.

‘The unknown landscape’

So far, registration for the summer session at MECC is trending above what it had been for the past two years, Westover says. The future remains uncertain, however.

Plans for Virginia’s free college tuition program have been put on hold, and Westover is expecting cuts in state aid but won’t know the details until the summer.

“We will make a commitment to do everything we can to retain employees,” she says.

MECC is expecting just under $1.4 million from the CARES Act. About half will go directly to students in the form of grants and stipends to help them with rent, internet access or other immediate needs. The college share will likely be used to offset losses in revenue and tuition.

Westover is concerned about “the unknown landscape in front of us.” She predicts that when campuses reopen, the “new normal” will include some continued form of social distancing, which could mean more class sections with fewer students per class. That raises such questions as “what kind of faculty loads will we need? And how do we relax policies around faculty workload?” she says.

Westover doesn’t think the economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic will be the same as what happened in 2010-11, when there was a huge increase in enrollment after the recession. It all depends on what incentives are available for retraining, she says.

More flexibility

In parts of the area served by Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC) in Oregon, broadband access is extremely limited, says President Marta Yera Cronin.

Teachers are reaching out to students to make sure they’re engaged. Participation so far “is better than what we expected,” Cronin says.

The college initially thought it would have to cancel science classes, but it was able to keep them going with home kits and online options.

The Oregon State Board of Nursing gave the college permission to use simulations. Several hospitals have allowed students to come in and finish their clinicals, but some students were not comfortable with that and plan to wait until it’s safer to enter a hospital.

CGCC’s Small Business Development Center is helping local businesses get loans and assistance, although some of them might not be able to reopen at all.

While many students have been laid off, few have withdrawn. Enrollment for the spring session is down about 2 percent.

Cronin expects $187,000 in CARES Act funds for students but hasn’t decided how the funds will be allocated. She says the college is leaning toward giving students with the most financial need the top priority.

The digital divide

“Our faculty stepped up to the plate” when Hawaii Community College (HCC) went all online, notes Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas.

“When planning for this, we were cognizant of the digital divide, among faculty and staff, as well as students,” she says.

Once distance learning began, that gap became more evident. Parts of the most rural areas served by HCC are “wifi deserts,” Solemsaas notes. As a result, some students sit in their cars in campus parking lots to access the internet.

In the beginning, labs at a few buildings remained open, so students could pick up computers and get tech support and tutoring with social distancing rules in place.

A student works at the Hawaii Community College Learning Center, which has adapted its services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: HCC)

HCC purchased thousands of licenses for the professional version of Zoom, and faculty were trained on Zoom and Laulima, the University of Hawaii’s online learning and collaboration system. Student success coordinators used the Starfish early alert system to reach out to students who didn’t log in.

Solemsaas says the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges was responsive in waiving standards for online learning. As a result, students have flexibility on whether they receive credit for a course disrupted during the spring semester. Testing is now done on Zoom, rather than at a testing center on campus.

Solemsaas is in discussions with other community college leaders in the state to determine how best to spend their CARES Act money. HCC received about $573,000 from the legislation.

Solemsaas predicts declining enrollment for the fall term as a result of the upset to Hawaii’s tourism industry. Enrollment for fall 2020 is down about 25 percent so far.

Serving the homeless

The coronavirus outbreak has been especially challenging for Hartnell College in California’s agricultural heartland, which has many farmworkers. A growing number of them were homeless before the pandemic, says President Patricia Hsieh. As farms lay off workers, she fears the homeless population will increase because farmworkers won’t be able to pay rent or find other jobs.

Many of Hartnell’s students are homeless, too, and some live more than an hour from campus and don’t have internet access at home. That has made it hard to connect with students for distance learning. They might have a smartphone, Hsieh says, “but you can’t do homework on a phone.” And they can’t go to a Starbucks for the wifi connection, due to the stay-at-home order.

Hartnell students who need a computer for school drive up to receive Chromebooks. (Hartnell College)

The college has been providing Chromebooks to students from low-income households, has gotten cable companies to provide internet service to students, and is working with the school district to make school buses with mobile hotspots available.

Another big challenge is the economic impact on local food producers and flower growers, Hsieh says. With restaurants and flower shops closed, they lost a huge part of their market.

Agricultural businesses are also big supporters of Hartnell College’s foundation, providing scholarships for students, and Hsieh worries those funds could dry up.

Teaching ESL

Before COVID-19, Hsieh had urged the college to reach out to the farmworker population with non-credit English as a second language course and short-term job training for other industries.

Marketing those programs in Spanish through high school principals and personal contacts was beginning to draw some interest, but now that all college instruction has moved online, ESL courses will be even more of a challenge.

Hsieh is expecting about $3.1 million in CARES money. Half of the funds will go to students, focusing on the 3,000 or so with the greatest needs. Hsieh would like to use the college’s share of CARE funds to cover an expected 3 percent to 5 percent drop in state funding, but the board will make the final decision.

She anticipates enrollment to grow next fall, when businesses are likely to need people with different skills. The college also broke ground recently on two new education centers, which are expected to open for the spring 2021 term.

“We just want to make sure when everything comes back, we will be ready to serve,” Hsieh says.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.