Community colleges start academic year with mostly virtual classes
As a nursing student, Jessica Shi is used to wearing gloves and masks while doing lab work at Harper College in Palatine.
But the college's coronavirus pandemic precautions are much more stringent for all students and will require some adjustment for the limited numbers of people allowed on campus this fall for in-person classes.
Before the pandemic, more than 100 students would use the nursing lab throughout the day. Now, due to social distancing, only 10 students are allowed at a time.
"It's definitely very different for us because right now with this pandemic, we require masks, gloves, goggles and even face shields inside the lab," said Shi, 31, of Wheeling, a peer tutor in the college's nursing lab. "I feel safe, because I know what the (nursing) department is doing for us and also I know that I'm doing everything that I can to protect myself."
More than 80% of students at suburban community colleges began the fall semester this week in virtual classes while a limited number of students, like Shi, returned to campuses for in-person instruction for courses requiring a more hands-on approach, mostly for lab work or career certification programs. Colleges are reporting enrollment declines compared to last fall ranging from roughly 6% at Harper College to 20% at Elgin Community College.
Much like their K-12 peers, college-goers are navigating a learning environment fraught with challenges, including COVID-19-related health and safety protocols, such as temperature and symptom checks at the door, contact tracing, health screenings, various protective gear and social distancing.
To make the transition easier, colleges are increasing technological, financial and mental health supports. For instance, Harper President Avis Proctor says the school is trying to help by, among other things, keeping tuition stable, waiving fees for distance learning and other campus activities and providing additional scholarship opportunities.
"We awarded $1.2 million beyond our Promise Program," said Proctor of Harper's Promise Scholarship offered to incoming high school graduates from Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and Barrington Unit District 220.
Harper's Educational Foundation created an emergency relief fund raising more than $300,000 to support nearly 700 students. That's aside from $2.7 million in federal CARES Act funding awarded to 4,400 students, she added.
"One of the things we are launching this fall is tuition relief in high demand areas -- logistics, real estate, IT, cannabis pharmacology, substitute teaching. We are looking at short-term career training programs," Proctor said. "More than $420,000 have been allocated to help (with) tuition costs."
Officials at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and Skokie are anticipating an uptick in need for counseling services for the more than 6,800 students enrolled this fall -- an 11% enrollment decline compared to fall 2019.
The college's wellness center is providing tele-therapy and some in-person counseling sessions by appointment for students without phone or internet access at home, said Oakton Student Care Coordinator Tania Boisson.
"Our counselors are having to be creative as well," Boisson said. "This fall, they are doing a support group for our first-time college students ... providing a space for them to check-in and process the issues that come up."
The college will offer a weekly drop-in virtual support group for all students. For students whose basic needs aren't being met or who are struggling with job loss or food insecurity, Oakton is providing financial help for non-tuition expenses through federal, institutional and Oakton Education Foundation funds. Since the spring, the college has distributed more than $700,000 in aid.
Most colleges are using video conferencing for live classes and online learning platforms for self-guided courses students can complete at their own pace.
"Some students just want to be in class because that's how they learn best," said Martha Lally, psychology professor at the College of Lake County in Grayslake. "We also have flex classes for individuals who are working all-day. The key is to provide as many options for our students as possible so that they can do what they think is best for them in this period."
Lally expects virtual classes will continue post-pandemic even after campuses fully reopen.
Aside from converting coursework to an online format and providing students the tools to access them, community colleges have flipped nearly all academic, financial and student support services to be provided virtually.
At Elgin Community College, that includes online tutoring and wellness services, plus 24/7 support for students using their learning management system, said Greg Robinson, associate vice president of student services and development.
Robinson added it's likely courses will be delivered online even in the spring.
ECC's total fall enrollment of more than 7,600 students is down 20% or roughly 2,000 students overall compared to last fall, mostly among English as a Second Language and adult services students. However, its full-time student enrollment is up by about 10%, officials said.
During a typical academic year, roughly 24,000 students tread the hallways of College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. This fall, that number is down to about 1,000 students on campus on any given day spread out across buildings due to pandemic restrictions, college President Brian Caputo said.
The college has spent the summer training faculty members on delivering courses online. Like most colleges, it has provided laptops and mobile hot spots to students who can't afford them, expanded wireless internet access to include campus parking lots, and increased scholarship grants and other financial supports for students. Despite that, student enrollment is down about 10%.
Some students are choosing to take a gap year to avoid paying for college costs and attending classes during a pandemic, but Caputo cautions against that.
"That's a terrible idea," Caputo said. "Although online instruction may not be the optimal situation, it's better than losing a year. They will fall behind."