Navigating the new normal

Our lexicon has changed dramatically in the last few months. Sanitization, personal protective equipment, remote learning and social distancing have become a part of our everyday discussions. For community college presidents, the responsibilities of leadership have never been greater.

I am profoundly heartened by the ways in which our sector has faced the challenges related to the global pandemic. Safeguarding the students we serve and the faculty and staff that serve them has been the hallmark of the response to COVID-19. The rapid and effective ways that community colleges have transitioned to remote learning have proven once again, that our colleges are responsive to the needs of their community.

Editor’s note: This article comes from the upcoming new issue of AACC’s Community College Journal. It was written prior to the current social unrest across the country. See AACC’s statement on racism.

We have learned so much and yet there are still so many unknowns as we move forward to create our new normal. College leaders have indicated myriad ways they are approaching safely reopening campuses. They are considering hybrid approaches and cohort models to decrease the number of people in classes at one time. Others are working on models that include remote learning for the first half of the semester in order to mitigate the need to transition again should the virus return to pandemic levels. These approaches are thoughtful and reflect the needs of each community.

Looming uncertainties

Budgets continue to be a concern for many community colleges. The welcomed relief from the CARES Act funding has been complicated to administer and has left many with questions regarding the formula used to determine the allocations and the conflicting guidance provided by the administration. We have been working across the federal administration to advocate for clarity and equity in the current and future funding.

Community colleges, now more than ever, are vital to the nation’s recovery and should be afforded every consideration as the nation’s looks to rebuild the economy. Your support of these efforts has been tremendous.

Enrollments are another area of concern for many of you. As we look to the fall semester, some of our university colleagues have already determined that they will continue remote operations. Others have indicated that they will be fully operational with social distancing guidelines in place.

The truth is, we do not know what enrollments will look like in the fall. There are indications that students will consider a gap year until they can transition to on-campus learning. Others are saying that students will turn to community colleges in order to fulfill general education requirements or to reskill for a new job. Either way, community colleges will face it head on and do whatever it takes to serve students but to effectively plan for such widely diverse scenarios in an unstable climate is a challenge.

The strength of our leaders

Taken in isolation, these challenges are not new. We have faced fiscal, enrollment and safety issues before and we will again. But the pandemic brought with it a world where we must face all of these challenges at once.

As leaders, we are expected to have solutions to these challenges. But, how can you plan and implement solutions when there is so much that is unknown or constantly changing?

The strength of our leaders will be in their ability to be comfortable leading in ambiguity. Recognize that there is uncertainty in so many areas of our personal and professional lives. Employees, faculty, students and even presidents will experience fear and panic at times. There is a genuine anxiety about job loss and all that comes with being unemployed.

Webinar on addressing COVID-19: AACC hosts a free webinar June 18 on how community colleges have addressed the COVID-19 pandemic and how they will move forward with student success, equity, leadership, governance, and innovation and technology.

Acknowledging these feelings will go a long way in showing support to those that serve students. As a leader, acknowledging your own feelings will show vulnerability and help others relate to your experience.

In crisis is opportunity and our new normal is not yet set. This may be the time to consider meaningful change that will map your college’s course to a new normal that brings positive outcomes.

The leaders of our nation’s community colleges are among the best leaders in the nation. Ask for help and don’t be afraid to reach out in this ever-changing landscape. Our new normal may be different, but I know that we will all continue to work together to provide the best educational opportunities for our students now and in the years to come.

About the Author

Walter G. Bumphus
is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.