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‘One Last Battle’

Coming together through online learning, holistic support, and fighting a pandemic

By Ben Dedman

May 11, 2020

Just a few weeks ago, David Gómez was planning a normal party to celebrate his retirement as president of Hostos Community College in the Bronx, New York.

“I was looking forward to all of these testimonials and insincere speeches about how much people were going to miss me,” he said. “I guess I’ve been spared that.”

Those plans, like much of American life, are on hold.

A Hispanic-Serving Institution “in what is arguably the poorest congressional district in the United States,” Hostos “serves as the primary resource for any number of things: addressing issues of food and insecurity, housing, access to technology,” Gómez said.

As the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) continues to spread across the United States, colleges and universities have been leading the response by ensuring faculty, staff, and students stay safe and healthy; preparing for the massive, sudden shift to online learning; sending supplies and staff to the frontlines; and doubling down on their missions to support students and their communities.

“Sometimes fate has a way of calling on old warriors for one last battle,” Gómez said. “This is ours.”

Getting Students Supplies for Remote Learning

In the weeks before spring break, administrators at Austin Community College District (ACC) in Austin, Texas, knew they had a problem. If, as they feared, they would have to close campus buildings and move all classes online, what would happen to the thousands of students who relied on campus computer labs to do their work?

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ACC President Richard Rhodes helps
distribute iPads to students.

They only had one clear answer: send the computers home with students. Before retailers started reporting nationwide shortages, ACC acted fast to buy a thousand iPads and a thousand laptops. They built a wheeled cart with long handlebars to pass the devices off to students at a safe social distance. Soon, students that relied on other specialized technology—such as sewing machines for fashion design classes—were picking those up as well.

“We’re doing everything that we can possibly do to help them have what they need to be successful,” said Molly Beth Malcolm, ACC’s executive vice president of campus operations and public affairs.

Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Elyria, Ohio, has been loaning students devices for years through a computer recycling program led by an IT professor—collecting old devices from the campus and community, refurbishing them, and loaning them to students.

Realizing that devices are just one piece of the online lea rning puzzle, colleges and universities are also working to get students internet access. ACC set up Wi-Fi access in parking lots on its campuses across the city, allowing students to walk or drive to campus to use the internet provided they stay in their cars, maintain social distancing, and use a mask.

In addition to providing hundreds of computers to students (thanks to support from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the City University of New York), Hostos Community College needed to provide internet access to its three hundred students living in New York City’s homeless shelters. Because of the need for social distancing, outside Wi-Fi access wasn’t feasible. Using $20,000 from the college’s charitable foundation, they purchased portable hotspot devices that students took home or to the shelters.

If campuses are unable to set up or purchase hotspots, some students may be able to use existing services to get connected. Low-income parents with children in K–12 schools can get internet service from Cox for $10 a month, and several providers are offering free internet to keep students connected during the crisis.

Hostos CC.jpg
Hostos partnered with Mott Haven Bar
& Grill to provide hot meals to students.

In addition to technology, colleges continue to support students with the food and other supplies they need for a productive learning environment. Hostos Community College partnered with Mott Haven Bar & Grill to provide hot meals to students and helped the New York City Department of Veteran Services store fifty pallets of food that were distributed across city agencies serving veterans and their families.

LCCC’s food pantry, Commodore Cupboard, has stayed open throughout the pandemic, partnering with community food banks to provide prepackaged boxes for curbside pickup. In March, the cupboard had three hundred more users than in previous months.

“Community is our middle name,” said LCCC President Marcia Ballinger.

Supporting the Whole Student: Maintaining Community and Holistic Support

College Unbound, a college that primarily serves working adult students in Providence, Rhode Island, is deeply committed to supporting the “whole student.”

Many of their students “come from broken systems. School as they once knew it didn’t really benefit them,” said Wanda Brown, a case manager for College Unbound.

Over their years with College Unbound, students have a shared core class every semester with a cohort of the same ten to fifteen students.

“I graduated from College Unbound, so I understand that sense of community very deeply,” said Jose Rodriguez, assistant director of recruitment at College Unbound. “I know how important it is to feel connected to your cohort because, when you’re feeling down, those are usually the folks that are there to pick you up and give you that extra boost of confidence.”

When the college had to shift to online learning and conduct cohort discussions over Zoom, the students already knew what the inside of classmates’ houses looked like because they had been there. They knew who had kids and needed childcare, because their kids would play together in the college’s free childcare.

Though the pandemic has drastically changed students’ lives, College Unbound has always been attentive to the effects of daily life on student experiences, so “it wasn’t an abrupt transition,” said Adam Bush, cofounder, provost, and vice president for academic affairs at College Unbound. “Students already were juggling everything. We’re just a school that responds to that.”

When social distancing came into effect, the sense of community transferred fairly easily, but the other support services—emotional and academic support, free childcare the college provided during class, weekly meals students ate together—were more difficult to replicate.

“The college is making sure that we don’t lose our connection with our students. Part of that was figuring out that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” Rodriguez said. Drawing on a large network of students, alumni, and community partners, the college’s staff has acted as a go-between to connect students with the resources they need.

“As a person who has been in a position of need, I understand how it can be embarrassing to say, ‘Hey, I don’t have enough food to make it through the week, I need help,’ to a complete stranger,” Rodriguez said. “Since we already have those relationships built with our students, it’s easy for them to come to us, and it’s literally on us to fulfill those needs.”

Often this has meant driving to students’ homes to get them whatever they need—devices and WiFi, meals from the college’s food-providing partners, a ride to a doctor’s office, or someone to play with the kids outside so parents could get some schoolwork done.

“You can give people an education, but if they’re not emotionally and financially stable, then the education is still limited because they still feel hindered,” Brown said.

When one student confided that she was stuck at home in an abusive relationship, Brown connected her with community organizations that helped her get a new home, furniture, and food.

“Now, she’s stable, and she’s soaring,” Brown said.

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Jose Rodriguez and Wanda Brown take selfies while delivering supplies to students.

Maintaining Academic Continuity in a Pandemic

While almost everyone in higher education experienced disruptions as classes and students moved off campus, some students were hit harder than others.

“The students who were abroad had the worst of that experience,” said Randy Bass, vice provost for education and professor of English at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they were ripped from. Many of them had unbelievable odysseys making their way home.”

After Georgetown made the difficult decision to bring study abroad students home, they questioned how many programs would provide instructional continuity or how students could still earn the twelve or fifteen credits they needed to stay on track.

Their answer was the Georgetown University Global Campus (GUGC).

“We put out a call to the whole faculty and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got three hundred plus displaced study abroad students. Who could offer a course?’” Bass said. “We basically invented it in a day.”

The response was overwhelming, with 185 course proposals that were narrowed to eighteen GUGC courses. Fifteen of these were selected from new and existing courses within the disciplines that satisfied important general education requirements or had timely themes like literature of the Black Death, journalism during pandemics, or business leadership in a crisis.

In one Latin American history course, several students who studied together in Madrid were reunited. “Being back online together created a way for them to recover some sense of community that they lost suddenly,” Bass said.

There were also three signature GUGC courses. Theory and Action in a Time of Pandemic was taught by a biology professor, Heidi Elmendorf, and a “rotating cast of all-stars” who provided interdisciplinary perspectives on the crisis. The last two courses gave students credit for “time served” in the weeks spent studying abroad, building on earlier learning experiences and providing reflective opportunities to make sense of their trips.

While many study abroad sites continued studies remotely, the program served over a hundred students with several hundred credits.

“The students really appreciated it,” Bass said. “They felt so disrupted and abandoned, the fact that we created this novel module just for them had a very significant psychological effect as well as academic.”

As students left campuses and moved online, study abroad programs weren’t the only classes upended. Other programs that rely on experiential learning or lab components have struggled to meet the learning outcomes students need for graduation.

At Hostos Community College, the gerontology program is replacing experiential elder care that usually happened inside facilities with a telephone reassurance program, with students talking with the residents over the phone and reconnecting them with family members.

At LCCC, students in capstone courses for nursing and health programs had to leave their clinical rotations at healthcare facilities that began treating the coronavirus. Granted an exemption from requiring in-person practicums, nurses are honing their skills remotely using high-tech simulations.

“We will be graduating those individuals on time this May, and they will be able to be employed immediately where they’re needed the most,” Ballinger said.

Students Seek Continuity in Academic Support

Now a beloved fixture of its Greenfield, Massachusetts, campus, Greenfield Community College’s Math Studio began twenty years ago with a simple request: a group of students wanted to meet with their faculty member, Sandy Gokey, for a little extra help.

After starting with informal meetings in a conference room, the studio was staffed twenty hours a week by math faculty members.

Students used the studio alone or in groups, for classes ranging from basic algebra to advanced calculus. Many students became regulars, working with faculty members over several years.

“I’ve had students who I’ve worked with for years, never having them directly in classes, but I have a strong relationship with them nonetheless,” Gokey said.

Until recently, “people were hanging out on Friday night, ordering Chinese food and pizza, and working together,” said Linda Cavanaugh, math department chair. “It was an incredible way of forming community.”

When the campus closed, losing that sense of connection hurt. Once again, it was the students who asked for the studio to continue.

Faculty member Caitlin Worth quickly set up a Virtual Math Studio over Zoom that allows faculty to continue meeting with students.

“It was our students who instigated this,” Gokey said. “It was watching our students and what they wanted, and then following their lead with what to do.”

To maintain the sense of community, students and faculty often meet in one large Zoom “room,” turning the volume up when they need help and muting it when they want to focus on a problem. Some faculty “share” the screen of their iPads or laptops, allowing students to watch as they solve problems. Others use a physical whiteboard or a simple paper and pen, holding it in front of the camera

“In an ideal world, if we were going to set up a virtual math studio, we would have had some training and practice,” Worth said. “But we just are trying it, and it’s pretty impressive how well it’s working.”

For some students, the shift online has been a boon. One student, who uses a wheelchair and had to get rides to campus, couldn’t access the studio regularly. Students who work during the day or have to take care of kids had trouble finding time during the day. Now, they’re able to log in from home.

Without the coronavirus, the department may never have thought of offering virtual hours. Now, they plan on offering several virtual hours a week even after returning to campus.

“There’s a certain intimacy that’s created when you’re in their kitchen and you can hear kids or the radio or TV going in the background,” Cavanaugh said.

One student had to ask her father to go quiet the geese down because they were making too much noise.

“It does make this sense of community, it really does,” said faculty member Norman Beebe. “We have Brenna, who’s writing in the chat, and I have Xiomara who has a dog sitting on her lap half the time. It’s kind of sweet.”

Getting Protective Equipment to Staff and First Responders

Even as students and faculty separated through social distancing, colleges and universities have been coming together to ensure first responders and hospitals have the supplies and workforce needed to fight the coronavirus.

Doctors at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond developed a process to collect N95 masks from healthcare workers, sanitize them using UV light, rigorously inspect them for quality control, and return them to their previous user. The system has the capacity to sanitize twelve thousand masks at a time.

After student-led initiatives to lower Olin College of Engineering’s carbon footprint, the Needham, Massachusetts, college transitioned from having students buy or rent wasteful, expensive graduation gowns to purchasing more ecological, economical gowns created from recycled plastic bottles. With Olin’s graduation ceremony canceled this spring, they donated their first shipment of recycled gowns to Gowns 4 Good, a nonprofit effort to collect graduation gowns for protective equipment in hospitals.

LCCC faculty used 3D printers to make
face shields for local emergency services.

At LCCC, faculty created a prototype face shield for emergency workers, dedicating the resources of its 5,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Fab Lab to printing them. Faculty took some smaller 3D printers home, delivering the shields to campus each day for distribution to local emergency services.

AJ Gray, an LCCC graduate and paramedic instructor, traveled to New York during the height of the city’s crisis to help on the front lines. When she returned home safely after the outbreak decreased, it was a cause for celebration.

After the City of Austin ordered that facial coverings must be worn in public, ACC’s fashion design department created kits with precut fabric and thread. So far, ACC has been able to avoid layoffs by redeploying staff who cannot do their duties on campus. Some are cleaning alumni databases; others are making masks to be used by essential employees.

“That’s their job right now, sewing masks,” Malcolm said.

As New York City’s outbreak began, Hostos Community College was told their campus may be used as an overflow medical facility for coronavirus patients, but “fortunately, we were never pressed into service,” Gómez said.

However, they have helped the fight in other ways. Hostos bought thousands of Chinese medical masks through a contact at Columbia University, giving some to staff and donating most to local hospitals.

“If you are a community college anywhere in the country, the geography changes, but your commitment to the community never does,” Gómez said.

Finding a Silver Lining

As the semester winds down, many campuses are anxiously looking to the future as they confront questions about enrollment declines, decisions to return (or not) to campus in the fall, and the continuing economic and psychological toll on students, faculty, and staff.

With that dark cloud hanging over their heads, many of them have been seeking a silver lining.

All of the campuses interviewed for this article marveled at how their campuses broke down silos to work together, with presidents, student affairs staff, academic departments, IT staff, and students all working to support each other.

At College Unbound, the crisis has also led to a new partnership with the Providence Community Library to make several online, for-credit courses free for all adults this summer. Two courses, Contextualizing COVID-19 and Your Career in the New Normal, are intended to help students make meaning of the pandemic. These online courses will, when deemed safe, be livestreamed outdoors at the Providence Community Library to encourage cautious regathering.

Looking out her window at an empty Interstate 35—usually one of the country’s most-clogged highways—Malcolm said that ACC is discussing permanent telecommuting policies to help staff maintain work-life balance.

She expressed optimism that student support services—such as the distribution of laptops and call-a-thons to keep students connected—seem to have limited student withdrawals this spring. She also noted that community colleges often weather economic downturns well, as many parents and students avoid paying more expensive tuition.

“In spite of how bad it is right now, and none of us are enjoying the fact that we can’t really be close to people, we’re seeing there are things that we can do differently in higher ed that will actually be beneficial in the long run,” Malcolm said.

Gómez, the old warrior, agreed. “This will pass. What condition we find ourselves in when this is over—that’s what really matters now.”


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.