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Community Colleges Scramble To Move Online Amid Pandemic

Bunker Hill Community College (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
Bunker Hill Community College (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

Massachusetts community colleges are scrambling to follow better-endowed private colleges and universities as they move to remote teaching.

"This is a very fluid situation, and not everybody is in exactly the same situation nor has the same resources," said Patricia Gentile, president of North Shore Community College and head of the Massachusetts Community College Council.

Community colleges are trying to maximize online learning and minimize the use of their campuses.

North Shore Community College is in its first week back from spring break. The college had more than 1,000 face-to-face courses. This week, most of those classes resumed in remote fashion. The rest will resume as remote courses next week.

North Shore has three campuses. Its Middleton campus, which houses culinary arts and cosmetology, is closed for now. The college's two large campuses in Lynn and Danvers are closed to the public, but open for some students. These include students who do not have online equipment or internet service at home and need to go to a computer lab as well as health care students who must take proctored exams.

Campus police, sanitation and internet technology employees are working on campus.

Gentile said the college has distributed laptops to employees so that they can work remotely. The college has also purchased laptops for students who need them so that they don't have to come to campus. The college arranges specific times and places for students to pick these up so as not to generate a crowd, Gentile said.

"We are just trying to get everybody to be just as remote as we can," Gentile said.

Five thousand students are attending North Shore Community College this semester.

"Our college is not closed," said James Vander Hooven, president of Mount Wachusett Community College. "However, for the foreseeable future, we're delivering our services in a different format."

That college has campuses in Gardner, Devens and Leominster, as well as sites for automotive and dental studies in Fitchburg. Classes resume remotely next week.

Mount Wachusett has closed all on-campus activity to students, but is making arrangements for laptops for students who don't have them, and for remote tutoring. The laptops will be distributed by appointment.

"If I was given a dime for every time I've heard the word Zoom in the last week, I'd retire," said Vander Hooven, referring to a popular online conference platform.

"We're trying to make sure our students don't fall through the cracks," said Vander Hooven.

Gentile said the biggest challenge is resources. Sanitizing supplies are hard to come by and laptops and subscriptions to online platforms present an unexpected cost.

Several community college presidents spoke to Congressman Seth Moulton Wednesday to discuss federal support.

"Community colleges are spending a lot of money on laptops," Moulton said. "We gotta make sure that that's reimbursed, and there's some funding for this kind of support in the [$2 trillion stimulus] bill [making its way through Congress], but I think there's going to have to be a lot more to come, especially as this pandemic goes on and as schools are shut for longer than a month or two."

(Moulton later announced Wednesday that he and his wife are in self-quarantine. Both have symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, but because their symptoms are mild, neither qualified to be tested for the coronavirus).

"One of our challenges is community college students tend to be less affluent, [with] fewer resources," said Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, with campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence.

"A majority of our students are first-generation [college students], low-income, minority," said Glenn. "We were the first Hispanic-serving institution in all of New England, so we have a large Hispanic student population across both our Haverhill and Lawrence campuses. Sometimes transportation is a struggle. Sometimes basic needs are a struggle. We're very mindful of those things, which is why we don't rush into closing things off to students before we have a plan for it. It took most of us a few more days than it did some of the more resourced private institutions to make some of these moves."

Glenn said the college is trying to get laptops to students and is preparing teachers for remote teaching as classes resume next week. He said there is no public access to the college.

Community colleges are also preparing many of the first responders and health care workers who may become critical to dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic if it is a prolonged crisis.

Moulton pointed out that community colleges have donated personal protective equipment from their nursing courses. He said funds have to be made available to the colleges to replenish these supplies once the pandemic abates.

"I am painfully aware every day that these decisions that we're making, if we're not careful, have the potential to damage students' academic progress, careers, the workforce for the Commonwealth, the jobs for the thousands of staff and faculty across the Commonwealth," said Glenn. "Getting these decisions right is vital."

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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