Pandemic teaches colleges lessons
Universities expect all in-person classes to return this fall
Over the past year, the education field — from elementary to higher — faced a barrage of challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A statewide mandate that left education administration and faculty scrambling to work from home and students to stay on top of their studies while learning remotely in 2020, carried into 2021. And had it not been for strong information technology departments and willing staffs in the higher education field, the transition to remote learning wouldn’t have been as smooth.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for schools was transitioning from in-person to remote learning.
For Eastern Gateway Community College, the service area for which includes Trumbull and Mahoning counties, the move resulted in increased enrollment. When the transition was made, the school faced another challenge — making sure students had access to the internet and computers, said Arthur Daly, vice president at EGCC’s Youngstown campus.
Some classes, such as those that required hands-on learning like in the medical field, still met in person but under health and safety guidelines.
Another technical concern for Eastern Gateway was making sure faculty had support from administration, Daly said.
“We had to make sure they had what they needed,” he said.
Luckily, “the challenges were very few.” Most of the course content at EGCC is cloud-based, but due to a “strong technology department,” the transition was as smooth, Daly said. Also, the school already provided “robust online programming,” Daly said.
At nearby Youngstown State University, the biggest challenge it faced was the rapidly changing information from health and government officials. The school made the decision to go to remote learning.
And right off the bat, administration and faculty “realized no two classes had the same challenges,” YSU Provost Brien Smith said.
Also, grants and publications of staff continued, and students competed nationally throughout the pandemic.
“Throughout all of this, YSU has continued in a way to make everyone proud,” Smith said, adding the university “pushed for those high-quality standards.”
At Kent State University at Trumbull, the information technology team on campus, as well as at the main campus in Kent, helped make the move to all-remote as seamless as possible.
“We were able to avoid or minimize any issues,” Daniel Palmer, interim dean and chief administrative officer for KSU at Trumbull, said.
To help students who didn’t have access to the internet, remote hot spots were added to parking lots.
Most of the students in Champion remained remote throughout the spring semester, with the exception of the nursing and veterinary technology programs.
The pandemic was a learning opportunity for KSU at Trumbull. “We discovered as a university community, that we were able to provide additional needed support and services to our students,” Palmer said.
Free programs are offered for students, including tutoring, mental health counseling, library guidance and technical support.
ON A POSITIVE NOTE
Not downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak, schools still achieved highights over the past year.
“We set in motion initiatives to save money, improve the environment and add some incredible educational opportunities,” Palmer said.
Solar panels installed last fall will provide clean energy that represents about 65 percent of what the campus uses. It’s estimated the savings in year one is $24,000 with more than $1.3 million over the next 25 years.
Trustees for KSU approved the sale of nearly 63 acres of the Trumbull location to Mercy Health, which will be used to build a health care campus, Palmer said.
“This partnership could expand to include additional internship, practicum and clinical opportunities for the nursing program,” Palmer said.
A partnership with Siffrin Academy was formed during the pandemic that provides physical space for them to help those with disabilities as they transition from high school to jobs or advanced education programs.
KSU, EGCC and Youngstown State University joined forces “to promote and further enhance internship opportunities at the nonprofit business organization,” Palmer said, which is at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber.
The pandemic provided an opportunity for students and faculty to work together to make it through at YSU. Students were hands-on with how to come up with systems that worked throughout the pandemic, Smith said, providing feedback.
Throughout the decision-making progress, the No. 1 concern for students and faculty was safety.
“You can’t be in an effective learning environment if everyone isn’t safe,” Smith said.
“We are looking forward to more face-to-face classroom experiences and activating our athletic programs, theatre performances, concert series, and all the activities college students and the community expect,” Palmer said.
The school is “optimistic” the fall semester will include face-to-face classes and activities, Palmer said. Local campus officials are working with Kent State main officials on a plan that would allow students, while following health guidelines, to return in person.
Eastern Gateway shouldn’t feel too much of an impact from the pandemic when the doors completely open once more. It has been working little by little toward the goal to get students back in the classroom.
“We’re still doing the same things because we’re not out of the woods yet,” Daly said, referring to security stationed at doors, checking temperatures and documenting who enters the buildings.
Regular sanitization efforts will continue into the future, he added.
The pandemic will have a lasting impact on YSU.
“This changes forever our view of the safety of environments from a virus and biological perspective,” Smith said.
Virtual learning, which was once held in a high regard, is being scrutinized in a new light as students and faculty have realized the learning process is stronger in a classroom or lab setting, Smith said, adding there also is a better mental health outcome to being on campus and communicating in-person.
“We’re very optimistic about what next fall brings us,” Smith said.