Middlesex Community College in Bedford and Lowell has some advantages as it heads into the home stretch toward a September 9 virtual opening.
For one thing, college President James Mabry, Middlesex committed last May to a fall semester of remote teaching and learning. So the faculty has had all summer to prepare.
“We did a lot of training and workshops for faculty. We spent the summer preparing for really good online programming,” Dr. Mabry said. “The faculty and the staff have been immensely creative and worked really hard throughout the summer to make sure students are able to continue their education.”
He added that for several years, Middlesex teachers have offered classes via computer as a standard option. “Fifteen percent of our classes are online. Almost all of our full -time faculty teach online and face-to-face.” Indeed, summer classes continue, albeit virtually.
And although enrollment is currently lagging from last year, the uncertainty in the world of four-year residential schools may provide community colleges with an edge.
“The situation keeps changing every week, and people are trying to adjust and figure out what works best for them,” Dr. Mabry said. “This is a year of great uncertainty for many students and their families who are struggling to figure out how to attend college this fall.”
Some students and their families are reconsidering plans to attend residential schools, and are looking at options close to home, he continued. “Just over the last couple of weeks, some high-profile institutions have reversed decisions to fully open and will go remote at the last minute.”
“A lot of students question whether this is the best route to go and a number of those students reach out to us. They can stay safely at home and get a high-quality remote experience.”
He noted that on one or two days a week, about 1,200 students on the two campuses combined will attend some lab and technical classes that don’t lend themselves to a virtual class, the president noted. It’s a hybrid format for some health care and science programs.
“We invested in some really great simulation programs for labs that are really fun to do, but there are still critical skills that have to be learned in person,” Dr. Mabry said.
President Mabry, who earlier this year announced e plans to retire in 2021, said the college is making a special effort this summer to reach out to the many low-income and first-generation families it serves.
“Many of these families are really struggling and worrying about whether there are going to be additional relief programs. This recession has really taken the economy apart from the bottom up and we have seen many of our students take a real hit,” he said. “Some were laid off, some lost unemployment benefits. The economic damage from the pandemic really is impacting a number of our students. And it could derail their plans to get a college education.”
“We have been reaching out aggressively throughout the summer to our existing students and potential new students, offering more scholarships, offering a discount on their first course – just take one course to keep going. As always is the case in community colleges, kids are not always aware of all the aid that may be available to them. We really put together very clear talking points for all our advisors.”
Much of the contact is online. “We find that our students are very comfortable videoconferencing. A whole generation is quite comfortable with it,” he said.
Although the remote model precludes conventional student activities, the president noted that “there are a lot of different tools that allow virtual meetings and even virtual trips. There are lots of different techniques, lots of ways to help build that sense of community.”
He pointed out that MCC is continuing to offer its non-credit professional development courses online. Indeed, a series of management training classes is enrolling for the fall, including “Leadership in Turbulent Times” and “Effective Performance Management Done Remotely.” There’s also a new academic refresher class for young people.
Looking ahead, President Mabry said everything depends on where the state is with the virus.
The second semester doesn’t begin until the fourth week of January, and the president foresees the possibility of rotating more students back to the campuses. The typical daily population is around 6,000.
“We have a little bit of breathing room but we are already planning a couple of different pathways,” he stated.
This year Dr. Mabry chairs the Council of Presidents of the 15 Massachusetts community colleges. “The community college presidents used to meet once a month. We meet twice a week now — earlier in the summer it was four or five times a week — to share ideas and best practices to keep everything going.
It has been hard, and tiring,” Dr. Mabry acknowledged. “I’m always checking in with folks to make sure they are not burning out. People are really driven to do this right.”
“We’re learning and we are learning quickly – to make sure we help our students succeed.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763
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