Students, Colleges Adapt to COVID-19 in the “Ground Zero” State

On March 3, Dr. Amy Morrison, president of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, gave her fellow presidents a blunt warning about COVID-19: “Mentally prepare yourself; it’s coming your way.” Sadly, she was in the position to know. Her college was the first in the nation to close for cleaning and disinfection after students and faculty were exposed to COVID-19 during clinical rounds at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the long-term care center that became the epicenter of the first outbreak in Washington state. The college was quickly named “campus zero” by the national press.

Within days, college-after-college started to close in the Puget Sound area. As COVID-19 continued its march across Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, which required colleges and universities to quickly move all face-to-face instruction to online learning.

Just this month, the governor’s office granted a request by the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to allow small groups of students in certain training programs—like Allied Health—to access labs and equipment on campus. The programs are limited to those attached to a list of essential occupations that are exempt from the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order. Students and colleges are required to follow strict safety protocols.

“We need trained and skilled Washington workers now more than ever,” Inslee said in a news release. “This epidemic has reminded us that essential workers truly are essential, and we need to treat them as such by ensuring that they get the training they need to be successful and safe.”

Like higher education institutions across the nation, COVID-19 threw Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges into uncharted waters. Fortunately, our system of colleges was able to draw upon decades of experience with online learning. All 34 colleges have eLEarning directors who share best practices through a systemwide eLearning Council. Through the council, faculty could share information about designing instructional content for online classes.

The colleges also share a common Learning Management System and other tools that allow faculty to create virtual classrooms, complete with lecture capture, online test proctoring, captioning, and etutoring. Most colleges require faculty to go through free training courses offered by the State Board. Information is also available 24-7 on a web-based resource page.

The COVID-19 crisis hit Washington right as students were finishing up winter quarter. Colleges used spring break to shift instruction and services online. Virtual rooms were set up so students could drop in and get real-time help from faculty and staff.

Of course, this Herculean shift to move everything online also meant that students had to have computers and access to WiFi. Colleges responded by distributing laptops, Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots, and by expanding the reach of their internet access to parking lots.

Foundations stepped up to offer grants to help students in emergency situations, and colleges distributed federal CARES funding to help students make ends meet.

Collectively with our K-12 and university partners, we tackled issues around grading, college admissions, dual-credit, and university transfer, with a shared understanding that students shouldn’t be penalized for the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

I am incredibly proud of the resilience and hard work demonstrated by our students, faculty and staff as they adjust to this worldwide pandemic. And yet, troubling challenges remain.

The COVID-19 disruptions have brought inequities into sharp focus. Many of our students come from low-income, working families and are the first in their families to go to college. They are often learning on outdated phones and computers, if they have the equipment at all. Students are trying to go to work, take care of kids whose schools have closed, continue their studies, and pay the bills.

Some rural areas of our state have inadequate broadband access. Students, faculty, and staff are driving to parking lots at colleges, coffee houses, and retail establishments to access WiFi from their cars. The hotspots colleges distribute help, but they can only reach so far.

The majority of our students work and many of them were in occupations shut down during the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order. Students are dealing with a sudden loss of income for their families as well as the sudden shift to online classes.

Community and technical college students are facing these inequities across the nation, and they need a national response. This includes providing additional financial support for students and institutions in the next federal relief package and bridging the “digital divide” by providing universal broadband across the United States. Internet access is as much a part of daily life as electricity and water service. This has been the case for a long time now, but the COVID-19 crisis has made internet access even more vital.

While the COVID-19 crisis has caused great disruption, it has also brought out the best in our students, our faculty and staff, and our colleges. By their very nature, community and technical colleges are flexible, innovative, and resilient. We will continue to act quickly to help people get back on their feet. After all, we are here for this very reason—to be our communities’ colleges.