It’s been a challenging few months for Wallace State Community College in Alabama.
On the first day of the semester on January 3, the college was hit with a ransomware attack.
“We started the semester with a virus, and we are ending with a different virus,” says WSCC President Vicki Karolewics.
Through it all, Karolewics has led the rural college as it adopted policies to ensure student and staff safety during the coronavirus pandemic, made the transition to distance learning, and developed plans for a cautious reopening.
As president of WSCC for more than 16 years, “I thought I experienced just about everything,” Karolewics says. After Hurricane Gustave in 2008 the college housed 1,200 evacuees from New Orleans. A tornado destroyed several campus buildings in 2011. Then there were multiple rounds of recessions requiring mid-year budget cuts.
“This has been one of most horrible semesters,” says Karolewics, who also serves on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors. Yet, the college is now on solid ground as it prepares to serve its community during the economic challenges ahead. (Editor’s note: This article was completed prior to the protests across the country over systemic racial injustice.)
Prepared for transition
As a member of the first cohort of AACC’s Pathways Project and a member of the Achieving the Dream network of Leader Colleges, WCSS was well-prepared to adapt to an online learning environment, Karolewics says.
“We have done a lot of work in the past decade to prepare faculty to work with technology in facilitating learning for students,” she says.
That was facilitated through WSCC’s Teaching and Learning Academy, which makes sure every faculty member is certified to teach online.
The college already had Blackboard shells set up for every course, so shifting to distance learning wasn’t difficult. Faculty started using Zoom for synchronous learning, then quickly shifted to Blackboard Collaborate.
Everything that had been available on campus before is now provided online while the campus is closed, Karolewics says.
Lion Central, WSCC’s one-stop student support center, provided computers and internet connections for staff and students to take home, she says. Student success coaches and mental health and other counselors “didn’t miss a beat” in staying engaged with students.
The college issued guidelines to faculty on how the instructional program should operate, and they worked with their deans to fill in the details. The plan was then approved by the emergency response team and the chancellor.
Unlike universities in the area that closed in March and told students to go home, “our focus this semester is on getting students to finish what they started,” she says.
When the college reopened on June 1, it brought in small groups of students who need to complete their labs so they don’t end up with incomplete grades. That affects about 100 of the 5,000 students enrolled in the spring semester.
How that is being carried out depends on the building, Karolewics, says. The welding facility is so large, for example, it allows students to be 20 feet away from one another.
Noting that she hasn’t received a single complaint from a student, Karolewics says, “that tells a great deal about the experience students are having.”
The details in ensuring a safe campus
When staff returned to campus on a phased-in basis in May, everyone was screened and their temperature taken as they entered a door. But when one staff member had a high reading, he and everyone around him was sent home.
To prevent that scenario in the future, the college established checkpoints at just two entrances to the college, rather than at each building. Anyone admitted is now given a wrist band allowing them to move between buildings.
WSCC also developed checklists for every building indicating: there is enough hand sanitizer; water fountains are closed; there’s a case management plan if someone tests positive or was exposed to the virus; and everything else is in order for students and staff to return.
In March, WSCC anticipated the need for supplies, so it ordered face masks for every employee and student from a local textile manufacturer and purchased 50-gallon jugs of hand sanitizer.
The college also ordered disposable masks for every UPS driver and every visitor who comes to campus. As a result, the college was well equipped before the supply chain slowed down.
One thing Karolewics learned: “We have 318 restrooms, 617 water closets, 551 lavatories, 161 urinals, and 92 showers” – and all of them have to be regularly sanitized.
The first mini-session in the summer will be on campus and reconfigured for small groups. Classrooms will run on a rotating schedule, meaning just six students in class at a time and there will be fewer but longer class periods.
The college is considering asking people a series of questions when they arrive on campus, such as whether they went to the beach or a pool party or were in groups of more than 10.
“If people are not following the safety protocols, I think we have a right to know that,” says Karolewics, noting that the college’s legal department needs to review the idea.
This summer and fall
Karolewics was pleasantly surprised that enrollment remains strong for the summer term. Headcount is down just 4 percent, and it’s decreased 3 percent for credit hours. She expects more students will enroll when they get the details on reopening.
The college is marketing its summer program to students attending four-year institutions. According to Karolewics, it makes sense for university students to save money and take a summer course at WSCC, especially when their own institutions have shut down for the summer.
One critical issue WSCC is evaluating is the need for housing during the fall semester. The college currently has 200 beds in single and double rooms. If it’s not safe for students to have roommates, the college will convert all double rooms to singles and house excess students in hotels.
Ensuring students can live on campus is important, Karolewics says, because that has a direct impact on enrollment. The state legislature had passed a fiscal year 2020-21 budget before the virus took hold, with a funding increase for community colleges.
Now WSCC is projecting a $1 million loss, just for the summer term, as all student housing, food service and auxiliary services – which used to bring in revenue – were shut down and all fundraising events were canceled.
To make up for those losses, the college is not filling vacant positions and is reassigning some staff to other areas.
“This coronavirus robbed us of so many opportunities to celebrate this summer; it’s been traumatic for all of us,” Karolewics says.
As a result, a team was assigned to create a way to honor graduates with a drive-through celebration, even though the official graduation ceremony is postponed to July 31.
As the graduates drove through, they received a card and pin, as college staff cheered for them.
One of the graduates, Aljon Celis, an immigrant from the Philippines, was a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar and is heading to Stanford University. Nursing graduate Sandra Wakely brought to the drive-through celebration the infant and toddler she cared for while earning one of the highest GPAs.
“We see the community college story at every graduation; we really saw the community college story that day,” Karolewics says. “The community college story is all about family and tenacity, perseverance and success, and overcoming obstacles to achieve dreams.”