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Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks

Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks are a good start to keeping AIC’s campus safe.

 

After a year when colleges offered a wide variety of learning options during the pandemic, from in-person to remote to a blend of both, the vast majority have opened their classrooms, residence halls, and athletic fields for a true on-campus experience this fall. But they’re doing so with caution, both internally — in the form of vaccine requirements — and backed by municipalities that are issuing broad mask mandates. The bottom line through all the changes? The idea that young people need the full college experience, and no one wants to risk a disheartening retreat to Zoom.

 

Everyone is tired of pivoting, Matthew Scott said. But, by now, they’re good at it, too.

“We’ve learned that our students are adaptable. They don’t always want to be, but they’ll go with the flow and make it happen. And our staff members have just rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘what needs to be done?’”

As vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students at American International College (AIC) in Springfield, Scott is just one of countless higher-education administrators who have spent the past 18 months adapting to one unexpected development after another when it came to COVID-19 and how students could best learn and interact during the pandemic.

“You want to plan in times when you aren’t in the middle of a crisis, so that you’re ready to use that plan when a crisis occurs,” he said. “But when you’re thinking through your crisis-planning process, you’re thinking of things like a fire or a hurricane coming through. Nobody planned for a pandemic. We had protocols for a specific outbreak, but not something like this.”

The lesson? “We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

The latest pivot for AIC, one similar to what most colleges and universities are doing, involves students living and learning on campus, with residence halls open and clubs and sports in full swing. But a facemask requirement is back, too, at least indoors. And AIC is also requiring students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID.

“We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

“At last count, we were at 98%, which is a phenomenal number to get to,” Scott said, noting that religious and medical exemptions are being given, but those people are required to be tested weekly, and their quarantine and isolation protocols in the case of infection differ from those of a vaccinated individual. “So far, the vaccination rate has been helping us quite a bit.”

Elms College in Chicopee has also mandated both masks indoors and vaccination for everyone (students, faculty, and staff) without a legitimate exemption.

“Last year, masks were required everywhere. Now, they are not required outdoors if you don’t have anyone within six feet of you,” President Harry Dumay said. “We don’t have distancing in the clasrooms like last year. But we’ll be functioning with a campus that is fully vaccinated.”

While students could choose to take classes in person or remotely last year, Dumay said the college is asking all undergraduates to be in classrooms this year, although remote capabilities are in place in case someone needs to quarantine.

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan for this fall, but “a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup.”

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus,” Dumay said.

When asked about pushback from students on the vaccine mandate, he said he wouldn’t use that word, exactly. “We certainly had quite a few inquiries from parents, saying, ‘is that necessary?’ Or from staff or employees asking, ‘so what does that mean if I don’t do it?’ I don’t know if anyone resigned on our campus or decided not to come because of the vaccination. There might be one or two cases, but I haven’t heard that.”

Scott said students tend to understand that vaccines not only prevent COVID in many cases, but reduce its severity in others.

At the same time, however, “college-age people are not particularly concerned about hospitalization or death because, for the vast majority of them, they’re able to weather the storm and get through it. But part of the education process is making sure they understand it’s not just about them, it’s about the people around them who might have underlying conditions they might not know about.”

If there has been any pushback, he noted, it has taken the form of questions about why both vaccines and masks are necessary.

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus.”

“We’d say, ‘yes, you’re vaccinated, and yes, that probably means there’s a lower likelihood of you contracting COVID, but if you do, you might not know you have it, and you might pass it on to somebody else — maybe a child who can’t get a vaccine, or maybe someone who’s immunocompromised,’” he explained. “For the most part, people get it. More than 1,000 U.S. colleges are requiring vaccines, so we’re among many at this point.”

 

Taking Their Shot

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal said HCC balanced the desire among many students to get back to in-person learning with the constantly changing health metrics around the Delta variant. “So we decided to open with about a third of classes in person, face to face; a third online; and another third blended of some sort.”

The original plan earlier this summer called for about 25% of classes in person, she explained, “but as those classes were filling up, we heard students wanted more of them, so we added some additional sections. Then we increased class sizes, which were lowered during the pandemic.”

Now 15 students are allowed in a class, still small enough to allow for social distancing, Royal said.

At the same time, “we were also hearing from other students who were not comfortable coming back in, given the conditions in the world. So that’s where we are this semester — we wanted to have a range of options for students so we can match whatever their comfort level is.”

HCC has had a mask mandate on campus since the start of the pandemic and has never lifted it. The college also modified its ventilation systems. “We have several classrooms that don’t have windows, and we wanted to make sure people felt comfortable in the learning spaces.”

In addition, the campus added protective barriers in many places and signage reminding students about masks, social distancing, and hand washing, as well as the need to get vaccinated.

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says the state’s community-college presidents are unified in their support of a vaccine mandate.

That is more than a nudge now, as all 15 community colleges in Massachusetts instituted a vaccine mandate last week for all students, faculty, and staff, which must be fully met by January.

“During the last 18 months, the Massachusetts community colleges have prioritized the health and safety of our communities while also recognizing that many of our students have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the presidents said in a statement shared with their campuses. “While a significant number of students, faculty, and staff are already vaccinated or are in the process of becoming vaccinated, the 15 colleges are seeking to increase the health and safety of the learning and working environment in light of the ongoing public health concerns and current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

In her own message to the HCC community, Royal noted that, “while there is no ironclad defense against coronavirus, extensive public-health research has shown that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death.”

While the UMass system has not yet instituted a vaccine mandate, UMass Amherst is strongly advising shots for all students and employees. “The science is clear that vaccination is the best way to stop COVID-19 from spreading, and our best way to continue protecting each other’s well-being,” an official statement reads.

In the meantime, individuals who are not vaccinated are required to participate in the university’s asymptomatic testing program.

UMass Amherst is also back to in-person learning, but is following public-health guidelines for wearing masks indoors and distancing where possible.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

“The use of indoor masks, required on campus and in the town of Amherst … reduce the spread of infection, said Ann Becker, Public Health director, and Jeffrey Hescock, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety, in the campus’ Public Health Promotion Center, in a statement. But they also laid out the stark facts when it comes to vaccination.

“Our data shows that, among our vaccinated population, only 1.7% have tested positive. Among the approximately 500 individuals who have received religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, 10.05% have tested positive. We urge those not yet vaccinated to consider doing so.”

They noted, however, that positive cases have been predominately among undergraduate off-campus students connected to unmasked social activities. “We have not seen any spread in academic settings. Most cases continue to be of short duration, resulting in mild to moderate illness.”

UMass makes vaccine clinics readily availabe on campus, as do the 15 community colleges. HCC offers free COVID-19 vaccinations for four hours every Tuesday, as well as COVID-19 testing six days a week on campus through the Holyoke Board of Health.

Royal was adamant that a vaccine mandate was the right call.

“I think this is in our collective best interest, for our community colleges and for our region as well,” she told BusinessWest. “At this point, the vaccines have been shown to be effective when we’re talking about preventing disease or reducing hospitalizations and deaths.”

She recognizes that people have many different perspectives that should be respected, but that the college has a duty to combat misinformation.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

 

Life of the Campus

In some ways, it has been a frustrating start to the semester, Dumay said, noting that the general feeling earlier in the summer was that masks would be optional, let alone vaccines, as COVID gradually retreated. While it hasn’t, he noted that it’s important for students to safety enjoy the full Elms experience.

“One of the distinctive features of an Elms College education … is that it offers a vibrant and nurturing environment, and not just with the instruction that happens in the classroom,” he said. “It’s all the interactions and how people behave with one another.”

College leaders believe important personal growth occurs through that interaction, he added.

“You can’t really do that with an online model. You can approximate it, but it’s not ideal. So to the extent we can, we’ll take the steps that are necessary so we’re safe and have an on-campus education, particularly for young people who are at that stage in their life where they’re forming their character.”

Like Scott, Dumay said the key lesson from the pandemic has been that it’s good to have a plan, but one thet can be modified at any given time. “We have a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup. We’re prepared to shift as the environment changes.”

The second lesson is the importance of transparent communication, he noted, because without it, people tend to fill the gaps with misinformation.

“We’re not pretending the pandemic is over by any means,” AIC’s Scott said. “We’re complying with the Springfield mask mandate right now and requiring masks indoors and outdoors when you can’t maintain the six feet. But we still have a tent set up outside; we’re trying to drive people outside as much as possible, just as an extra layer of protection.

“But the 98% vaccination rate, along with masking — I don’t want to give people a false sense of security where you don’t have to be vigilant, but we’re feeling pretty confident that we’re doing what we need to do to keep people safe.”

If a pocket of infection arises, the campus is ready to bring in more testing supplies and trigger quarantine protocols, but Scott feels like the double protection offered by vaccines and masks are the best way to keep that possibility at bay.

“There’s no one to be mad at,” he added. “I’m not mad at the mayor for putting in a mask mandate; he’s doing what needs to be done to keep the people in the community safe. But is it frustrating when you think you have a plan and the pandemic doesn’t cooperate? Of course, but a virus doesn’t cooperate.”

What makes all the planning and inconveniences worthwhile, he said, was seeing the energy of the students as they moved back onto campus a month ago.

“It was kind of a heartwarming moment seeing some of these returners … they left in March of 2020, and they didn’t come back until the beginning of this September. So when they see each other in person for the very first time in a long while, you can see it, you can feel it. They want to be with each other.

“We believe in the on-campus experience,” he added. “They’re coming here for all these things — to participate in athletics, to live in the residence halls, to eat in the dining commons. We’re on an online campus in this moment.”

Dumay saw the same energy at the Elms — and doesn’t want to do anything that might threaten to snuff it out.

“The first week, seeing students back on campus, was fantastic,” he said. “They’re happy to be here. They don’t want to be sent back to Zoom. They’re happy to be with each other. And we’re happy to see them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

Back to Normal?

It’s hard to gauge what ‘normal’ looks like during the era of COVID-19, when normalcy is a moving target. For area colleges and universities, though, getting back to normal means one thing: bringing as many students back to dorms and classrooms as possible. Make no mistake, campus life this fall will still be different from the pre-pandemic college experience, but just opening those classroom and residence-hall doors is a big step — the result of many lessons learned during the most unusual academic year in memory.

Normalcy.

It’s an attractive concept these days, if an elusive one. Just ask the folks planning for the fall 2021 semester at the region’s colleges and universities.

“This fall, we’ll go back to some normalcy, with classes back in person full-time, students in the residence halls, and athletes on the fields,” said Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College. “That’s the plan right now.”

Scully said Elms has long maintained a COVID-19 task force that meets every week to discuss public-health data, on-campus health metrics, current recommendations of the CDC and the state Department of Public Health, and, importantly, how faculty and staff feel about a full return. “That all played a part in making decisions for the fall.”

He noted that students seem excited about coming back to Springfield Street in Chicopee, even though the college’s ElmsFlex hybrid plan, by which students could learn on campus, remotely, or with a combination of both, has been well-received.

“We’re not fully remote; we had that ElmsFlex option, because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely,” Scully said. “But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Western New England University (WNEU) was among just 27% of U.S. colleges and universities that opened to mainly in-person learning and residential living last fall and remained open through the 2020-21 year, having delivered about 75% of courses on campus and the rest through online and hybrid formats, said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

“Because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely. But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Two factors played into that success, he said: a culture of small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio is 12:1) and plenty of space that made social distancing much easier to implement, and a commitment — a compact, really, among students, faculty, and staff — to make sure the campus could stay open.

“They adhered to that social distancing, we put up tons of signage, we brought in extra cleaning staff, we had plexiglass throughout … all those things contributed to the plan for the past year,” Gross told BusinessWest.

He noted that colleges and universities don’t have the luxury of making their fall opening plans in July or August; the shift on the fly to remote learning that happened last spring is not the preferred model for campus planning. So, while the course of the pandemic might still alter the plans before September, those plans still need to be made and set in motion.

At WNEU, that will mean all courses normally taught on campus will be, indeed, taught in person, with three-foot distancing in place and masks required, at least according to current guidance. While some hybrid options may be available, Gross said, “we feel Western New England is best with face-to-face classwork, and that’s what we’re moving forward with.”

American International College (AIC) is moving in that direction as well, said Matt Scott, vice president for Student Affairs.

For the current year, he explained, residence halls are open, and students are allowed to live on campus, but most classes are remote, and athletics have continued as normal. Surveillance testing for COVID is widespread, and other safety and sanitization protocols are a regular part of life.

For the fall, Scott said, the current plan is to go back to “whatever the new normal will look like,” but the goal being full residence halls and in-person instruction.

“We’re still waiting to see some state guidance — there’s K-12 guidance that came out in terms of desk distancing in classrooms and things of that nature, but they have not come out with specific guidance for colleges yet,” he added. “But that’s the plan.”

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely.”

The plan at most campuses, it turns out, is for normalcy, or, as Gross noted, whatever that term might mean come September. But optimism is high that college life will finally begin to look like it used to.

 

Safety First

Community colleges, for the most part, were more fully remote than most schools, and are being more cautious with their return to normalcy. For example, Greenfield Community College (GCC) will offer classes in a face-to-face or hybrid format, meeting at least once a week on campus with some possible online instruction as well.

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely,” said Chet Jordan, dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at GCC. “Our faculty and staff have been almost entirely remote for the past year, so their input in how we can phase in a slow reopening of the campus was essential to us.”

GCC brought together a group of faculty, staff, and administrators to talk through the complexities of a reopening, eventually crafting a hybrid model. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff feel safe when they return to campus,” Jordan added. “The situation is constantly changing, but we addressed the key questions as best we could.”

Students in GCC’s health-career programs will meet on campus in hands-on courses to best prepare them for essential jobs in the growing healthcare industry. Those in other professional programs, such as business and education, will also have on-campus options. In most programs, students will complete some of their coursework online and will participate in weekly experiential learning opportunities, including lab activities and field trips.

GCC will follow state guidelines on occupancy rates in classrooms and offices, mask requirements, and health screenings, as well as maintaining scrupulous air-quality practices and a thorough sanitizing schedule.

The class schedule is roughly 55% online and 45% in person, Jordan said, which allows time to space out the classes between sections to avoid a bottleneck of students entering and exiting, while maintaining appropriate distancing.

“It gives students who want to be on campus that in-person experience, but also flexibility the rest of the week to finish online,” he said, adding that the library will be available for students to access a virtual class between in-person sessions on any given day. “So they won’t have to jump between campus and home, we’re giving them space to do a remote class and then go to their next class on campus.”

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families.”

UMass Amherst also expects campus life to return to normal operations in fall 2021. That means an emphasis on face-to-face instruction, full residence halls — an expected 13,000 students will live on campus — and a complement of student events and activities.

Planning for summer orientation is well underway, as new students will be invited to participate in a series of synchronous and asynchronous orientation programs over the summer before they arrive for in-person welcome sessions at the end of August.

This past fall, many first-year students who would have experienced on-campus housing for the first time did not get that opportunity. So, in an effort to support these students, freshmen and sophomores will receive priority consideration to select on-campus spaces this fall. Still, based on current interest, UMass expects to be able to meet all housing requests, including all interested juniors and seniors.

Finally, UMass announced that its renovated Student Union is now open, offering space for events, student organizations, student businesses, and a ballroom.

The campus experience is more than academics, WNEU’s Gross said, noting that the university creative in finding ways to bring students together for small-group activities in the campus center. This fall, he expects larger outdoor activities, including intramural sports, to return, as well as indoor events as long as safety protocols are followed.

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families,” he said, including a big homecoming event inviting back the 2020 graduates, who were unable to have a traditional commencement experience.

 

Learning by Doing

In his first year working at GCC, Jordan said he has been “incredibly warmed and inspired by the creativity of the faculty, who do anything they can do make sure students have the best experience.”

For example, science classes have included more outdoor, experiential learning. Meanwhile, students in the health sciences have been on campus throughout the pandemic, due to the unique, hands-on needs of their training. “They paved the way,” he said. “They’re the ones who figured out how to open as safely as we possibly can.”

At AIC, students in those fields have been diligent about safety protocols and personal protective equipment, Scott said. “Because they’re health-science students, they tend to take it a little further than some of our other students. If they’re getting up close and personal, they’re wearing face shields and masks and such.”

Particularly during the 2020, he noted, constant pivoting was the order of the day for college faculty and administrators, who had to constantly monitor the development of the pandemic and guide a testing and safety plan for their campuses.

“But I think, overall, our plan stayed the same,” he added. “We thought it was safest this year to keep as many students remote as possible and have some in-person experiences that are kind of controlled for the pandemic-related protocols we had in place. That all stayed the same throughout the year, but the way we approached them adjusted as we needed to.”

Some of the lessons learned led to positive developments, said Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC. For example, the college used to deliver its certificate of advanced graduate study (CAGS) programs for teachers at 11 physical sites. Once the program was forced online by COVID, administrators began to hear from the grad students that they loved it.

“So, beginning in the fall, we’re moving to a virtual format throughout the state, where we’re able to deliver licensing programs in a virtual format for all the programs we offer,” Cole said. “That came directly from students. They wanted virtual — not online, but virtual, synchronous, so they can communicate with each other.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” she went on. “Our teachers now need more flexibility than ever. They’re rock stars, and we need to be able to support them.”

Scott agreed, noting that there were many instances where he and others said, “wow, we didn’t realize this would work, that students would enjoy this.” One example is online counseling services, which are now much more accessible to commuter students.

That doesn’t mean students don’t want to return to in-person learning, of course; for the most part, they certainly do. But they’ve handled an unusual year well, he said.

“I am amazed every day how well our students are doing with these protocols. You’ll always have the occasional mask below the nose, and that’s going to happen, usually because they have a mask that doesn’t fit them well. But we have not really had any issues with students giving people a hard time when they’re entering the dining commons to get food. We planned for that; we asked, ‘how are we going to deal with the student who shows up and flat-out refuses to wear a mask?’ But we have not had that happen.”

In fact, the worst incidents have been the occasional group of students who head to the mall and don’t wear masks in the car.

“They’re not supposed to do it, but there are far worse things they could be doing and far worse ways they could be violating our protocols,” Scott said. “We try not to have a heavy hand; we try to take an educational approach and make sure they understand the potential impact, the ripple effect those actions can have on the community. But we’ve been very impressed with the way our students have responded this year.”

 

Waiting for the Return

Enrollment dipped last year at many colleges due to uncertainty about what the academic experience and college life would entail, but most area institutions see the application and enrollment numbers on the rise in 2021.

“Along with the rest of the community-college sector, we saw a decline over the past year, but that was an anomaly,” Jordan said. “In most recessions, community colleges do really well, but this was the reverse; this sector was the hardest-hit. The reason is that low-income students and students of color have been unprecedentedly hit by this pandemic, and those are our students.”

It’s especially important, then, for community colleges to offer a flexible model during these times, and that’s what GCC is aiming for, he added.

“We want to be sure we’re reaching students at home with kids, so those students can take classes online, and also opening the campus in such a way that students who need to be on campus will get that in-person instruction. Having more flexible classroom options will invite more people back.”

Cole said AIC successfully implemented the plan it thought best for 2020-21, and will now expand upon that.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said, noting that campus tours have begun again, and the campus hosted its first in-person admissions event of the school year in mid-April. “Graduate students love virtual info sessions and open houses. Undergrads are a mixed bag, but graduate students will take it all day. So we’ll likely keep some of that.”

Scully said nothing is set in stone when it comes to pandemic planning; the past 13 months at the Elms have been proof of that.

“We’re monitoring everything very closely, and our first priority is the safety of students and staff,” he said. “We know things could change on a dime.”

Elms, like many colleges, already offered some programs online before the pandemic, and has since bolstered the technology to conduct those, having purchased new cameras, microphones, and other equipment. “But, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back to normal.”

And doing so safely, Gross said.

“I’ve never been so proud to be part of an organization as I’ve been of our students, faculty, and staff over the last year and a half,” he said. “I can’t stress how many extra hours our faculty and staff put into adjusting curriculum, adjusting extracurriculars, and changing everything we do, from open houses to the way we engage with current students, prospective students, and alumni. It was a group effort in flexibility, agility, determination, and energy.

That said, “the community is tired,” he went on. “We’ve been going non-stop; I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff have told me about the extra hours they’ve put in over the weekends. We’ve all been chipping in to do whatever it takes to keep things safe and enjoyable for students.”

But there’s no time to take a break. Not with the fall semester right around the corner.

“Things are constantly changing,” Gross said. “We’re all learning as we go. But we are a learning organization, after all.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

Come back to campus, or don’t — either way, you’ll learn.

Just don’t expect campus life to be anything like you’re used to.

That’s essentially the message from UMass Amherst, by far the region’s largest of roughly 20 colleges and universities grappling with how to welcome students back to campus this fall — or setting them up for online instruction, as the case may be. Or, in some cases, both.

“We heard loud and clear from our student body that, even if they’re taking courses remotely, they would really like to be on campus or around campus,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said during a recent conference call discussing the university’s fall plans.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of students will not be required to return to Amherst, with most courses offered remotely. But they may return — for residence-hall life and in-person instruction — if they’d like.

“Our communication will be very explicit about what the campus might look like and what our expectations are, and what we will hold all of our students responsible for,” he continued. “With all of that knowledge, if they still want to come to campus and live in campus housing, they’re most welcome to. And whether they come back to campus or not, we will really provide a rich and rewarding academic experience with not only remote courses but also advising and lots of peer-to-peer interactions and faculty-to-student interactions and so forth.”

In other words, Subbaswamy noted, “we’re prepared to serve our community to the best possible extent in terms of providing all the college experience can under these different circumstances because of the pandemic. That’s the bottom line.”

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education, but the university is ready to pivot if the pandemic worsens.

That said, life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow guidelines, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls, at least at first. Most student services will be offered remotely. The Recreation Center will be open — with limits and restrictions placed on activities.

In short, things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts. Leaders at the region’s higher-education institutions have been meeting since … well, pretty much since they sent students home in mid-March, to hash out what classrooms and the campus experience will look like come late August, when the fall semester begins for most.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation.”

None of the schools’ plans are exactly the same, with some emphasizing on-campus instruction, some — including most of the community colleges — opting for an online-heavy approach, and others landing somewhere in between, with students choosing between in-person, online, and hybrid programs (see box on page 19).

Western New England University, touting its ample space and small classes, has decided to conduct the vast majority of classes fully on-campus this fall, while a small number of courses will be delivered in a hybrid or online format.

“We keep coming back to discussions regarding our mission, which is to provide a highly personalized educational experience inside and outside class,” said Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. “For the faculty and staff working on this plan, any time we get stuck on details, we come back to that mission.”

Students will be required to wear a mask or face shield, practice social distancing, and maintain a high standard of hygiene. In addition, plexiglass barriers will be installed throughout campus, including classrooms. Most buildings will be one-directional to minimize hallway contact, buildings will be cleaned more frequently, and residence halls will be limited to single and double rooming options, among other measures.

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen.”

“We watch the news every day,” Gross told BusinessWest. “Things are constantly changing in terms of safety, and we have to follow state and federal regulations, but based on the information we currently have, we feel confident our plan is doable — that it meets our values and protects the health and safety of students. But if things change, we also have to be open and honest, and we are willing and able to change.”

That’s why WNEU, like many colleges and universities, has actually been planning for three different scenarios — most students on campus, online learning, and a hybrid of the two.

“The majority of our families are ready for their children to be on campus and have the campus experience,” he added, “They trust our Health Services and know, if it’s ever not safe to be here, we’re going to make the right decision in the best interest of our students.”

That’s the COVID-19 world colleges and universities must grapple with — with every day bringing changing news and more moving targets. As enrollment planning goes, it’s unprecedented, at least within living memory. And students aren’t the only ones who will be learning something.

Course Corrections

At Elms College, classes will be taught this fall in a hybrid, flexible model that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, online, or both. Students can move between the options based on their personal preferences, while international and non-local students will be able to continue their coursework from afar.

“We know some students are high-risk or living with someone high-risk and don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom, but we also know students want an in-person experience,” said Walter Breau, vice president of Academic Affairs. “So they can choose when to be in the classroom.”

The usual mix of masks, distancing, and plexiglass will be in play, and on-campus students will be expected to monitor and record any COVID-like symptoms they might have. As is the case at other campuses welcoming students this fall, any positive symptoms must be reported to the Health Center for consultation, and the college will have a separate living space for any student in need of quarantine.

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

Leaders at 20 area colleges and universities continue to discuss plans for how academic programs will be delivered fall. Those plans might change, and even schools planning on a mostly on-campus experience will likely offer some programs remotely. Here are the latest plans, grouped by categories that may not capture all the nuances of each plan; readers are encouraged to visit the schools’ specific websites for more information.

• All courses delivered online, but students have option of attending in person: UMass Amherst.

• All online, with students in some programs (such as healthcare and culinary arts) on campus part of the time: Asnuntuck Community College, Cambridge College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College.

• Blend of on-campus, online, and hybrid instruction: Bay Path University, Berkshire Community College, Elms College, Mount Holyoke College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, Williams College. American International College is discussing this model as well.

• Blend of on-campus and online instruction with students on campus for either fall or spring: Amherst College, Smith College.

• Mostly on-campus instruction: Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hampshire College, Western New England University.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” Breau told BusinessWest. “We know students want to come back. How to keep them safe while doing that has been the prime goal of reopening. Our task force made sure safety was always number one on the list.”

To that end, students will need to review safety-training materials when they return to campus. “It’s going to be a team-based effort. It’s not just administrators, faculty, and staff, but students have to be a part of the process as well. We’ll certainly rely on them to help us stay safe.”

There’s a safety net built into the ‘HyFlex’ model as well, Breau noted, in that it wouldn’t be difficult to transfer all learning online if the region’s infection rates soar.

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen; it’s built into the syllabus and the way instructors plan the courses.”

American International College is also seriously considering a HyFlex model, and plans to announce its detailed fall strategy by the end of July, said Nicolle Cestero, chief of staff, senior vice president for Human Relations, and Title IX coordinator. She said a group of campus leaders has been meeting for several months and are doing all they can to give students an on-campus option.

With more than half of its undergraduate student body first-generation college students and more than 50% also Pell Grant-eligible — meaning they come from low-income families — AIC doesn’t want to add additional challenges to their lives, she noted.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation,” Cestero said, noting that the HyFlex option is an ideal model in that it allows students to access their education in a way that best serves their needs in this most difficult year.

Plus, there’s value in the on-campus experience that can’t be replicated remotely, she added. “Maybe your roommate becomes your best friend for life. Or you’re participating in a conversation that you never would have participated in — on race or gender or power and privilege, or whatever it is — and you don’t necessarily get to do that if you’re not on campus. You develop so much in these years — it’s your first time away from home, and you’re teaching yourself how to do things, how to manage your own time and finances, all that stuff.”

In a letter to the Springfield College family, President Mary-Beth Cooper detailed a blend of in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction, with all learning moving online after Thanksgiving. But she emphasized that new safety measures — from masks and distancing to a contact-tracing program and isolation spaces — are key to making the plan work.

“Successfully remaining on campus throughout the fall semester will depend on the degree to which we, as a community, work together to reduce the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and, if it does, responding quickly to limit its spread,” she explained.

Brandi Hephner LeBlanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass Amherst, noted that the university will distribute a student agreement that details the testing and symptom self-monitoring they’re asked to do, as well as the need to carry hand sanitizer and face coverings when moving about, among other safety measures.

“We’re really asking them to be a responsible community member, first and foremost, and to be a part of the bystander intervention,” she said. “When you see someone without a mask, remind them.”

And if students don’t comply?

“There is going to be what I would term an escalation of intervention,” she explained. “We’ll have public-health ambassadors on campus that will help remind folks, and there will be a lot of communication to find out if there’s a problem. This is not going to be an immediate referral to the Conduct Office, unless it’s something so egregious that that’s necessary. But this is something that takes a lot of reminding to manage the behavior. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Catalog of Options

A few institutions across the region have emphasized the value of returning as much activity to campus as possible. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge cited recent survey data collected from 10,000 high-school and college students; 78% of respondents find the experience of in-class learning this fall appealing, while one-third would transfer out of their institution if the college shifted to online course delivery.

Nicolle Cestero

Nicolle Cestero says the value of the campus experience shouldn’t be minimized, but a hybrid flex model might be the smartest way to go this fall.

“We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally,” Birge said, which is why MCLA is moving ahead with an ambitious on-campus approach. “Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone. Of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working.”

Other campuses, like Amherst College and Smith College, are looking at having roughly half the students on campus for the fall, to better achieve physical distancing, with the ones sent home for remote learning having on-campus priority for the spring.

“We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to students and families. “With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Technical Community College is among a handful of area institutions — several community colleges among them — to continue with an online model this fall, though some programs in STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation will include low-density, on-campus labs adhering to social-distancing, PPE, and sanitizing protocols.

“STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs. “The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities.”

In some instances, STCC will use synchronous teaching strategies, with students gathering at a specific time through videoconferencing. But most of the classes will be taught using an asynchronous approach, which gives students flexibility to set their own hours to complete their studies and assignments.

“Many of our students have childcare obligations, work commitments, and a host of other complicated circumstances,” President John Cook said. “We know that our students benefit from having flexibility in their classwork, and online is yet another way STCC lives its mission of ensuring access to higher education.”

Flexibility, in many ways, has become a key word in the region’s higher-education sector, which suddenly offers a wide array of learning models heading into perhaps the most unusual fall semester for American students in generations.

What these schools have in common is an emphasis on safety, and on making sure students know their own responsibilities in keeping COVID-19 infections low — and keeping the campus experience alive, in whatever curtailed form it might take.

WNEU’s Gross is confident it’s a message they will understand.

“You’re not doing it for yourself, but for other people. And that’s such a positive message we can send,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s why human beings are on this earth, to care for one another and take actions that help the community. We hope that value is something that’s embraced by our students. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and take actions to help others.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

As the calendar turns to late July, area colleges and universities are getting set to welcome students back for a fall semester that will, like the spring semester before it, be unlike any they’ve ever experienced.

It will be that way for the students, but also for the institutions themselves as they try to cope with a pandemic that is testing them in every way imaginable, starting with the not-so-simple task of simply reopening.

Indeed, there are a number of strategies being deployed by the schools in this region and well beyond — everything from mostly or entirely online (something many community colleges are favoring) to in-classroom learning, to an increasingly popular hybrid approach that blends both .

And there are twists on those themes, such as UMass offering online education in all programs, but also giving students the option of living on campus — with a whole lot of rules that will have to be followed in an attempt to keep people safe from the virus.

But as schools scramble to reopen, deeper discussions are taking place — or should be taking place — about how the pandemic may bring about systemic change in how colleges provide an education to students.

With that, we return to those reopening strategies, because they provide ample evidence of an ongoing debate concerning what’s important to students and what a college education is or should be.

Many are of the opinion that in-person, in-the-classroom learning is critical and more effective than online, or remote, learning, and this is why some colleges are working diligently to maintain this element, even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, others consider the campus experience an integral part of a college education.

This leads to the larger question — just what is a college education? Is it merely gaining skills that could enable one to succeed in the workplace? Or is it much more? Is it also about making lifelong friendships, learning about people and about life, working in a collaborative environment, and, yes, going to parties and football games and concerts?

The easy answer is that it’s all these things. The challenge for each institution is figuring out how to provide the best mix of all that to its students. As the story on page 17 makes clear, no two strategies among the region’s schools are exactly the same, and that makes the fall semester a fascinating experiment — one higher-ed leaders promise to take lessons from, even as they hope for a more traditional fall of 2021.

Coronavirus Cover Story

Hard Lessons

Vacant Elms College Campus

‘Extraordinary.’ That’s how one area college president described the massive shift to online learning that colleges and universities nationwide were forced to undertake back in March. And he’s right. But these are extraordinary times — and beyond the questions about when students can safety return to campus, and concerns about declining enrollment and revenues going forward, are a series of equally extraordinary conversations about what higher education might look like on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, and why.

Back in March, when colleges and universities everywhere began sending students home, the obvious question was, ‘when will they come back?’

That’s still the question — or, more accurately, one of many, many pressing questions.

Here’s another one: when students do eventually come back, how many will not? At a time when enrollment is already declining nationally, mainly due to smaller high-school graduating classes, some trade groups, like the American Council on Education, are predicting a national enrollment drop of 15% this fall, higher for international students.

“On one hand, it could be anxiety about students returning to the campus environment or students wanting to take a pause and see how things are going,” said Harry Dumay president of Elms College. “Then, their financial circumstances might make it difficult for them — although, with the stimulus funds, we are working with families to help them with those concerns.”

Dumay said Elms leaders are preparing for all contingencies when it comes to how and where summer and fall classes will be delivered, though it seems likely that at least the initial summer sessions, starting in May, will have to be remote.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue. Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

“What’s less certain is what will happen in the fall. A number of factors go into making this decision, beginning, of course, with when it’s safe for our students, safe for our employees and faculty, and safe for the general public,” he noted, adding that Elms leadership constantly tracks the guidelines it receives from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will not reopen the campus if doing so would provide an opportunity for the pandemic to spike, even if the curve is starting to flatten now.

Working in Elms’ favor, he noted, is the fact that it draws mainly from the Greater Springfield region, and in this current environment, graduating high-school seniors, whether in 2020 or 2021, and their families might prefer to choose a college closer to home.

“Those are discussions seniors and their parents are making around the kitchen table,” Dumay said. “We are certainly working with all of those students who have been admitted to Elms, trying to answer their questions so they can continue to pursue their dreams in a safe manner, and guide them in making those critical decisions in this critical time.”

From its perspective, Elms — and all colleges, for that matter — is making contingency plans of its own if enrollment does come in lower than the target.

“We’ll have a plan-A budget, a plan-B budget, and a plan-C budget. But Elms is on solid financial footing. We’re not wealthy — we don’t have a large endowment — but the institution is financially healthy, and we can withstand some shock in enrollment.”

Carol Leary, who is stepping down in June after 25 years as president of Bay Path University, certainly didn’t expect to spend her final weeks communicating with her staff remotely.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue,” Leary said of … well, virtually all colleges and universities. “Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

With that in mind, she said, “everyone is doing their business-continuity planning and deciding what to do if there’s a decrease in enrollment for the fall. It’s on the table for most institutions, and certainly, at Bay Path, we’re talking about it. But we’re very well-placed in some ways; we usually use 4% or less of our endowment on operating costs. Obviously, when enrollment goes down, it will hit schools harder that rely more heavily on their endowment for the operating budget. I’m not sure that’s going to be an issue here.”

That said, Bay Path may freeze hiring and not fill open positions that aren’t absolutely essential, Leary said, while curtailing travel in the short term as well. “Every institution is looking at how the budget is crafted and may have to make some tough decisions — maybe even some furloughs and layoffs in the future.”

At the same time, she added, most institutions will have to start looking at themselves through a different lens — a topic she recently wrote about in an article marking 25 years in the president’s chair. Specifically, how can higher education, with its ever-spiraling costs, better reach and serve the majority of Americans, including those in lower income strata?

“I think the model and the cost are definitely areas that will change in the future, and the COVID crisis has forced all of us to look internally at how to begin to address those two issues,” she said.

With that, she raised perhaps the most intriguing question of all — how will higher education look when it emerges on the other side of the pandemic, and students do return to campus? Because most in this critical industry — and all four area presidents BusinessWest spoke with for this story — don’t believe it’s going to be status quo.

Digital Dilemma

Before considering those questions, John Cook took a moment to appreciate what a momentous challenge it has been for an entire nation’s higher-education system to go online with very little preparation.

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment forecasts and developing budget options that consider all contingencies.

“It’s been extraordinary for higher education, and certainly at STCC, to make such a comprehensive change,” said Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College. He explained that the college, like most others in Western Mass., was fortunate to be able to leverage spring break to transition to distance learning.

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), said it was a challenge to help 4,500 students, many of whom had never experienced online learning, to become familiar with all the technology, software, and scheduling. At the same time, many students were losing their jobs — for example, in restaurants and hospitality — and exacerbating issues of food and housing insecurity among lower-income students.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that,” she said, adding that HCC has hooked students up with Chromebooks and other equipment as needed. “I’ve done several town-hall meetings with faculty and staff, and meetings with students, to answer their questions and validate their feelings and acknowledge the uncertainty they’re feeling.”

Dumay was similarly thankful for the spring-break cushion that gave professors extra time to adapt their courses to the online environment.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that.”

“The faculty were amazing, and they turned it around,” he said. “The courses are being delivered in different ways — some are using live Zoom sessions, some are using asynchronous Zoom sessions, and some used narrated PowerPoint delivery that students can access on their own time.”

Elms recently reached out to all students to poll them on how classes were going, and 30% responded, Dumay said. Of those, the vast majority said they had what they needed to continue their learning online, while about 2.5% reported difficulty with Internet access. In response, Elms is keeping its library open for that reason — with social-distancing measures in place, of course.

“More than 86% feel confident being successful in the online environment; some students said this is a lot more work,” Dumay said, conceding that in-person learning is preferable in most cases, and for myriad reasons. “Elms is a lot more than being academically successful. Part of the value proposition for Elms College is its small, very intimate environment that emphasizes growth of the whole person — the spiritual component, the psychosocial component.”

Trying to replicate that online is difficult, Dumay said, but the college is doing what it can to build an online community where students can connect with each other and access the campus resources they need.

Perhaps no institution in the region was more prepared for the online transition than Bay Path, which has been offering its graduate programs almost entirely online since 2006, and its undergraduate American Women’s College is totally online as well. Leary feels like that’s a path forward to help all students afford an education.

“There will always be people who can afford institutions like Harvard and Princeton and Yale, but the majority of Americans can’t afford that type of education,” she said. “That’s why we’ve created a very low-cost model in the American Women’s College, putting together a well-crafted curriculum and a model that supports students, so very few will fall through the cracks.”

For now, she added, the percentage of classes that will continue online is up in the air.

“Most of us are thinking that summer school will be online, and then then we start looking at the fall. Even if social distancing is lifted, we don’t know what the impact on the college will be — on the residence halls, the classrooms, the dining rooms. As we look to the fall, we’ll be prepared to open, and we’ll also be prepared to go online. We have to be nimble.”

Profit and Loss

Leaders of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts have kept in touch about when they might open campuses up, and even then, under what kind of social-distancing parameters, Royal said. As for summer programs, HCC’s first session has already been moved fully online, but because a handful of second-session classes will be more difficult to deliver remotely, that decision is in limbo — not to mention what will happen in the fall.

Christina Royal says many students are dealing

Christina Royal says many students are dealing with not just a shift to online classes, but job loss and food and housing insecurity.

“It’s hard to say definitively what the situation will be in September or October,” she told BusinessWest. “What I’m trying to do is position us so that, whatever the situation, we can pivot on very short notice, and respond even faster than we did this time around, because all the parameters are in place to do so.”

Cook said STCC is currently modeling enrollment projections and working with trustees on a budget that takes into consideration a possible enrollment hit. He noted, however, that community colleges in Massachusetts tend to do well during economic downturns.

Royal noted that trend as well. “We run counter-cyclical to the economy. When the economy starts to go down, people start thinking, ‘what do I need to retool myself, and how can I prepare for a career change?’ — and our enrollment goes up.”

She noted the trend becomes noticeable about 12 months after a recession begins, and, indeed, 2010 — the height of the Great Recession, which began in late 2008 — was HCC’s most recent enrollment peak; as the economy has improved, enrollment has steadily declined.

The question, both she and Cook said, is whether the same rules apply in the current environment, which is not a slow-building recession, but a full-stop economic shutdown that could, in turn, lead to an extended economic lull.

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment,” Royal said. “It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

One wild card in the mix is what she called the “emotional recovery” from what’s happening now. “People have been jarred to their core; they’re concerned about their own safety and concerned about engaging in the world.”

That said, HCC was already planning for a 5% enrollment reduction this fall — largely due to demographic trends — but is now thinking in terms of 10%. “We have to plan for that contingency, and we have to deliver a balanced budget to the trustees. So that’s what we’re looking at.”

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment. It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

If enrollment does decline by 15% nationally, that represents a $23 billion revenue loss for colleges — money that will be only partly offset by government relief funds. For example, more than 80 colleges and universities in Massachusetts will collectively receive more than $270 million as part of a federal relief package intended to help schools and students during the pandemic. UMass Amherst tops that list with an estimated $18.3 million in aid. Nationally, the Higher Education Relief Fund allocated $12.5 billion to 5,125 colleges and universities.

Collectively, the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts will receive $48.8 million in aid — certainly a help, but not enough to ease enrollment concerns going forward. Cook agreed with Royal that community colleges shouldn’t assume the sort of enrollment bump they usually see during recessions, even though they offer a more affordable model than private, residential colleges.

“This isn’t like any economic downturn the nation has ever experienced in the past, even the Great Recession,” he said. “Because of the public-health impact on people’s lives, it’s hard to assume enrollment will be up in the near future. People are dealing with so much else in their lives, they’re not able to turn their attention to education and workforce development.”

Future Shock

If there’s a positive lesson from the pandemic to bring into the future, Royal said, it’s the massive potential of technology to streamline education and make it more affordable and accessible.

“What’s happening now isn’t online learning; it’s emergency remote learning. I don’t want people to think that someone having to pivot and put together course materials with one or two weeks notice to deliver for the second half of the semester is the bar of online learning,” said Royal, who has a Ph.D. in instructional design and spent years heading up distance learning for a large community college in Ohio.

“I think of the potential for more innovative learning designs, highly interactive simulation labs augmented in virtual reality — those are more sophisticated than what we see in online courses now,” she added. “I believe the promise of online learning will be realized someday, but that’s going to require more inclusion and investment and professional development to really expose our educators to the possibilities.”

Some good can come out of every crisis, Leary said, citing in particular the rise of telemedicine, which will likely get a permanent boost from the COVID-19 crisis, as well as companies learning the value of remote work, lower emissions generating cleaner air in cities right now, and, yes, a greater focus on how to not only teach students remotely, but do it better.

Another takeaway, Royal said, might be a new focus on process improvement that extends well beyond remote learning. “If something takes six steps but we’ve learned how to do it in three, why are we going back to six? So, when we open our doors again, we’ll be looking at how we can streamline processes — and how to offer more virtual services in general.”

She’s not speaking about classes here; rather, it’s the routine business of paying bills, getting forms signed, and other administrative functions. “They might want to do that remotely, at 8 in the evening, at their computer, while they’re thinking about it. So, I see a lot of room for process improvement and streamlining student services overall.”

STCC is also learning it can offer value through streamlining its admissions, enrollment, and financial-aid operations online, “to make it more seamless for our students to work through the experience of getting into college and staying with the college,” Cook said — even while continuing to promote the face-to-face value of its campus advising center.

Meanwhile, through the online transition, “we’ve learned that we can move pretty quickly,” Cook said. “Sometimes higher education gets painted as slow to respond, slow to adapt, but we’ve demonstrated that we can move quickly and with a degree of grace when we need to.”

Dumay said lessons learned from the COVID-19 shutdown might change college life in America in ways both good and bad. On the positive side, while online learning can’t replicate the important interpersonal development built by campus life, going online has demonstrated there is a bigger place than college leaders might have imagined for remote programs.

“This will alleviate a lot of the fears people have about the efficacy of online learning. They’ll realize they can do it where it works, so we can have a lot more learning in the online environment,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean education will move completely online. The residential experience is a rite of passage for the growth of a lot of American youth. It would be a loss if we didn’t return to that at some point in the future.”

More worrisome, Dumay said, is the potential this crisis has to shut down many schools completely.

“It may be that some don’t make it and close their doors,” he said, noting that the most vulnerable colleges include many that serve lower-income, first-generation students, often students of color. “If higher education became less accessible, that would be an unfortunate casualty of this pandemic.”

Grade: Incomplete

The presidents who spoke with BusinessWest had a lot to say — much, much more than could fit in this story — but, while their comments were insightful, they were in many cases less than definitive. After all, it’s hard to speak definitively about a pandemic — and an economic shutdown — that offer no sure timeline.

“Within our student body and our employees, people are really hoping for clarity — that’s the element in short supply right now,” Cook said. “As we continue to work with these health guidelines, as we flatten the curve and pay attention to social distancing, when and how will that allow us to get back to some version of where our value lies — leveraging on-campus resources like labs and simulation?

“No one knows when we’ll get back to leveraging those resources,” he added, “but there’s still a lot of hope around that — and worry, because those are incredible resources for our students.”

In short, it’s impossible to deliver all the value a college offers over a computer screen, from miles away. In the meantime, everyone is learning valuable lessons — which is, after all, the point of higher education.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Breaking Down Stereotypes

A mom of two young children, Alysha Putnam strives to be a mentor for women of all ages in the PVWIS.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs have historically been labeled careers for men. Those stereotypes, along with unfair treatment of women in STEM, have dissuaded many from beginning or furthering such careers. Luckily, women in STEM are becoming less of an exception, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of many colleges and organizations, women now have more resources than ever to follow their STEM dreams.

Wearing many hats is a common theme for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Parent, teacher, student, and scientist are only a few that Alysha Putnam can name off the top of her head.

When speaking about her journey, she recalls it was a bumpy road, and says several female mentors helped her become the successful woman she is today.

“It was because of various key people — particularly women, actually — who believed in me despite the life challenges that I was going through, that I was able to be successful despite all the chaos,” she said.

One of these women was her master’s adviser, Paulette Peckol, who, as Putnam recalls, was very accepting of the fact that she had two young children and was flexible with her schedule.

Now, as a teaching and research assistant at UMass Amherst in the organismic and evolutionary biology Ph.D. program, she teaches classes while pursuing her research-focused doctoral degree. Throughout this journey through education, Putnam said, she has developed a strong passion for giving back in the same way she was supported.

Unfortunately, women in STEM, including moms like Putnam, have historically faced backlash, oftentimes driving them away from pursuing a career in these fields or even discouraging them from continuing to climb the ladder once they are established. But Putnam and other women in Western Mass. are using their own personal experiences to try to improve the lives of other women who are hoping to make it in these fields.

That’s why Putnam wears yet another hat: co-founder of Pioneer Valley Women in STEM (PVWIS). She and fellow co-founders Melissa Paciulli, Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, and Michelle Rame dedicate much of their time to being a support system and connector to women either already in STEM fields or pursuing such a career. Putnam is an alumna of Holyoke Community College (HCC), Paciulli serves as the director of the STEM Starter Academy at HCC, and Rame is an HCC graduate and current engineering student at Western New England University.

One of their biggest goals is to squash many of the stereotypes that surround both women in STEM, at community colleges specifically. 

“Stereotypes in STEM as a whole exist,” Paciulli said. “I think it’s important to really recognize that all people belong in STEM — people of all abilities and all races and all sexual orientations. We at PVWIS really believe in inclusivity, and through the community colleges we can provide access to a wide, diverse population for STEM, and we can really tackle that issue of diversity in STEM through our work within the region and within the community colleges.”

And they are not the only women in the area making it their goal to help women pursue and excel in these fields.

Gina Semprebon, founding director for the Center for Excellence in Women in STEM (CEWS) at Bay Path University, notes that her own experiences inspired her to start this program to help women pursuing STEM careers.

“I had a really hard time trying to break into the STEM field when I did,” she said. “It was so clear, even as a student for my graduate work, that there was bias. The males were breezing through, and the few women that were in there were not getting the help or support they needed, or were actually being thwarted.”

Fortunately, programs like PVWIS and CEWS are providing access to resources and educational opportunities for these women to follow their passion and climb the STEM ladder.

Turning Experience Into Expertise

When Susanna Swanker walked into the first day of her college internship, the women’s restroom had to be cleaned out for her because it was being used for storage.

Susanne Swanker

At S.I. Group (formerly Schenectady International), she was a chemist working on a pilot project. Aside from the secretary (whom Swanker bonded with very well), she was the only woman in her area. She remembers going to work in a hardhat and jeans while her other friends in accounting or social-services positions were getting dressed in business professional attire.

“It’s a different field, so you have to be willing to do those things,” she said. “I think sometimes maybe that’s a little off-putting or it’s not so attractive for people. But if you love the work, and I think that’s maybe where the challenge is, you get past that.”

Now dean of the School of Business, Arts, and Sciences at American International College, she is working toward refining STEM programs at the university to better fit students’ interests.

Being the only woman in a STEM room is not limited to the workplace. McGinnis-Cavanaugh said it is not unusual for her to be the only woman in the room while she is teaching engineering courses at Springfield Technical Community College.

While the percentage of female faculty in STEM programs at STCC is healthy, she said, the female student population is not so great.

Melissa Paciulli says the events hosted by the PVWIS are intended to make connections and build relationships among fellow STEM women.

Being a woman who went to community college and experienced many of the same struggles her students now face is one of the main reasons why she co-founded PVWIS and continues to teach at STCC.

“I see myself in my students,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says — community colleges still have that stigma attached to them. ‘Oh, you go to a community college, you couldn’t get into a real college,’ that type of thing. That really bothers me because I went to a community college, so that resonates with me in a big way.”

These stigmas, she said, are an issue of equity in the community-college world, and the everyday issues women in STEM often face come back to one word: access.

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh

“There should be no difference between the opportunities that men and women have,” McGinnis-Cavanaugh argued. “We kept coming around to the same thing, that our students needed access. That was the word that we kept coming back to. We were trying to think of ways that we could expose them to professional women, to professional situations and professional networks.”

Bay Path’s Leadership Exploration Analysis Development program has similar goals. This 100% online initiative under the CEWS umbrella provides a certificate to early- to mid-career women in STEM fields, giving them the leadership skills they need to advance in their career.

Michele Heyward, founder of PositiveHire and CEO of Heyward Business Consulting, acts as an industry expert for the program, and says this certificate provides women with the tools they need to continue to move up the ladder in their career.

 

From left: Gina Semprebon, Michele Heyward, and Caron Hobin.

“Men are generally promoted based on potential, while women and people of color are promoted based on the proof that they know what they’re doing,” she said. “It is truly essential to have programs like this that are in place, active and engaging for students who are generally going to go out into a workplace where they may be the only one.”

Caron Hobin, vice president of Bay Path, partnered with Semprebon on CEWS and says stereotypes and stigmas faced by women in STEM made it a no-brainer to kick-start the program in 2013.

“I was moved by the statistics that would scream loud and clear that women were just not advancing at the same level as men,” she said. “You’re surrounded by really sharp women, and you look around and say, ‘why is this?’”

Toward a More Equal Future

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to Million Women Mentors, 75% of STEM workers are male. In addition, only three out of 12 women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field still work in a STEM career 10 years after graduation.

That is why programs and organizations like CEWS and PVWIS exist, and these stigmas are slowly being squashed.

“We see ourselves as being the connecting point of all these different women across the Valley and bringing them together to support each other, to share knowledge, to encourage, to uplift, to make connections, to empower,” Putnam said. “As we interact with our community-college students here in Western Mass., we are seeing incredible women of all ages coming through the community-college system who are very capable and smart and just need the support and encouragement to say, ‘yes, you can do it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, there have been rumblings from the world of higher education. Rumblings that times were changing and times were not particularly good. Rumblings that in some cases led to mergers among colleges, even a closing or two, and predictions that more were likely to come.

But the rumblings seemed far away, involving small institutions most of us had never heard of — Mount Ida College, Newbury College, the College of St. Joseph.

All of that changed last week, when Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson dropped what seemed like a bombshell, but what was in reality news that many saw coming. She announced that, amid falling enrollment and declining revenues, the nearly half-century-old college has commenced a search for a partner to help secure its future. The situation is so dire that school officials are not even sure if they’re going to admit a freshman class for this coming fall.

That decision will come in the near future, and in the meantime, the school will search hard for a merger partner, preferably one that will not only help it get back on solid financial footing, but enable it to maintain its non-traditional approach — there are no grades here, for example — and decidedly different ways of doing things.

Nelson is confident that such a partner can be found — other schools, such as Wheelock College, have forged such partnerships, in its case with Boston University — but time will tell.

Meanwhile, the announcement from Hampshire College should serve as a wake-up call, not that anyone in higher education really needed one, that times are, indeed, changing, and that imaginative, proactive steps are needed to secure the future of such institutions.

Numbers lie at the heart of this problem — all kinds of numbers, but especially those pertaining to the size of high-school graduating classes. They’ve been falling steadily over the past several years, and at an alarming rate.

With fewer students going to college, a survival-of-the-fittest scenario is emerging, and there are high stakes, not only for the colleges involved but the communities in which they reside.

Indeed, it’s no secret that, in addition to healthcare, education is the other pillar of the region’s economy — hence the phrase ‘eds and meds.’

Fortunately, for the most part, the ‘eds’ sector locally remains quite strong, and many institutions are faring well, primarily because they are fitter than some others.

And by fit, we mean aggressive in efforts to develop new programs and new revenue streams, and also tell their story. In short, they are not sitting on their hands, hoping and believing that times will get better and that what has worked in the past will work in the future.

At the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, this is exactly what has happened at Hampshire, and also Mount Ida and other schools.

Several schools in this area have been very proactive in finding new ways to attract students and remain vibrant. Bay Path University and the emergence of its cybersecurity programs is a good example (and there are many others there), and American International College’s ambitious expansion of its graduate programs (a strong sources of revenue) is another example.

The demographic patterns we’re seeing today are not projected to change anytime soon. High-school graduating classes are going to continue to get smaller, and colleges of all sizes — even this region’s community colleges — must be creative and entrepreneurial in their planning if they intend to not only survive but thrive.

If they’re not, there may well be more press conferences like the one at Hampshire College last week.

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