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Greater Boston's Community Colleges Confront An Atypical Semester17:10
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There's been a great deal of talk about four-year colleges and universities as students move back onto campuses, or maybe just log in remotely.
But what about Massachusetts' community colleges? 
How will their students, who are often working while attending school, and may be low-income or represent populations who have suffered disproportionate impact from the coronavirus pandemic, manage this fall?
We asked two local community college presidents: Dr. Pam Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College, and Dr. Valerie Roberson, president of Roxbury Community College.

On whether crisis or opportunity is the bigger headline for community colleges: 

Dr. Pam Eddinger: "We don't have dorms to deal with. We don't have groups of students coming back and and not knowing what the future is going to look like. We are the steady ones. [This is] a difficult time period, but there are certainly opportunities to look to the future. All of our students are local. They come within eight miles of the college and they're on the T. They're part of the city. It's not like we're importing folks from outside the city ... I think the crisis part is that our students' lives are complex. Right. They're tied into what's going on at the K-12 districts. Are their children going back to school? Are their economic and working lives stable? Are they having rent issues? Do they have enough food? The issues that they deal with are the everyday issues they're dealing with already, and COVID just pushed it."

Dr. Valerie Roberson: "I agree with President Edinger and I'd add that this crisis has caused us to be even more flexible than we have been in the past. Our students typically have adult responsibilities, including child care. The pandemic caused us to change from about 10 percent classes that were online to 90 percent classes online. Those classes are ultimately a lot more flexible and forgiving if you have child care issues or if you have a job."

On what causes the most concern for administrators as classes reopen: 

Eddinger: "We are about the same as what Dr. Robertson was talking about. We're about 10 to 15 percent on ground only when we have to be. That's our nursing labs or culinary labs or respiratory care. But we're very careful ... We're concerned, we're watchful, bu we're not fearful ... The one piece that I do watch for is that our students or the parents of the kids who are in [Boston Public Schools] ... so whatever it is that they do will have reverberations, so we watch closely to make sure that the basic needs are met, as Dr. Robeson had noted. Our food pantry now is delivering virtual delivering food to our students and we're mailing out gift cards for grocery stores to make sure that their lives don't get turned any more upside down."

Roberson: "It's hard for students to persist without ... social supports and physical contact. We'll be looking at ways in which we can reach out to students throughout their time this semester. I'm also concerned about students' access to technology.  We've started a program ... where we are loaning laptops to students ... so we know then that everybody can enter the class on the same footing with the technology that they need to be successful."

On the differences among Boston's regional colleges as they respond to the pandemic:

Eddinger: "The concerns about quality instructions and the professional development that we've been doing with our faculty over the summer has made a huge amount of difference. I mean, folks are looking at online as if it's new. We've been doing it for years at the community colleges because of the of the students we have ... so this pivot, even though it seems so dramatic, was where we were heading anyway. I think there's definitely huge opportunities for a greater flexibility, and we know that the traditional population of students are getting more and more scarce — [that] it's going to be the adult who is going to be our workforce — so we're moving in that direction. We're just moving a little quicker."

On whether community colleges will see more or fewer students enroll as unemployment rises: 

Roberson: "I think that we will see more students because they are realizing that the jobs that are available really don't provide enough money and support for their families. They'll be looking to retrain for what I see as new emerging fields that will come out of the pandemic or fields that need to be adjusted ... to the new conditions. ... We'll also see some students that are not [Pell Grant]-eligible that really understand the value of community colleges. For our schools, it's ... around six thousand dollars for a full-time student for the full year. If you can't go to a campus ... and you're staying at home, ... the community college looks like a great option at a very affordable cost where your courses are going to transfer."

On whether students have access to the resources they need:

Eddinger: "I would be a fool to say to you [that] we've got it figured out. We know what doesn't work and we're trying to move away from what doesn't work ... It's going to take probably another couple of cycles to really work out all the bugs ... We can't always control it because it's the student's living situations that sometimes dictate their needs. COVID has been kind of like a crack of lightening in the dark. All of a sudden, you're seeing all these things ... that are needs that we have to fulfill because we don't have a choice anymore. In some ways, it's an indictment of how little system investments that we've made in the past, but now that we know, we can fix them pieces at a time. The support services that that Dr. Roberts said had noted — well, now we have tutoring online. We have the wraparound services and case management online. We have live chats. Those things just came into being this summer and we're gonna get better at it ... This is an iterative process. It's not a magical process. But every time we do it, we're going to get better at it. I'm hopeful that our students are also building capacities and competencies that they didn't have before. That's going to help them as they move into the workforce."

On the case for increased investment in Mass. community colleges: 

Roberson: "The lightning strike from the pandemic is only the first strike of lightning, and the second one would be racial unrest. [At Roxbury Community College,] 80 to 90 percent of its students are students of color. We are long aware of the challenges that this population brings to the educational environment, but I think what this whole period has done is highlight our challenges to the rest of the world ... I think there's definitely more of an awareness of the students that we serve, the challenges and the investment that really pays off when any individual becomes work-ready and is able to make a better contribution to the community."

This segment aired on August 31, 2020.

Zoë Mitchell Twitter Producer and Studio Director
Zoë Mitchell is a Radio Boston producer and studio director.

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Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.

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