Slowly, Middlesex Community College is coming back to life from its Covid shutdown.
Students, teachers, and staff are again populating campuses on Springs Road in Bedford and Kearney Square in Lowell.
“They’re happy to be here, happy to be interacting in a safe environment,” said new MCC President Philip Sisson. After serving as provost and vice president for student affairs since 2010, Sisson was named to succeed Dr. James Mabry two months ago. “That experience has really allowed me to hit the ground running.”
Sisson said, “about 42 percent of our classes have gone face-to-face component.” A mask mandate remains for students, teachers, and visitors. “The mask mandate keeps people safe at this stage of the game. Our priority here is how does the college continue to serve the community in as safe an environment as we can.”
Last week, new students met each other and their teachers “to prepare for college” at two-day intense “experience courses” on both the Bedford and Lowell campuses, Sisson said. “I have been greeting them personally. When you are in a room with brand-new students, this is what energizes us.”
For about 18 months, more than 90 percent of MCC courses were remote; a few laboratories were in person.
Distancing protocols are also always under consideration, the president said. Since less than half of fall semester classes are in-person, there should be plenty of room in classrooms, he said, adding, “We have an emergency management team and a return-to-campus committee. They meet on a weekly basis.”
“I think we’ve learned a lot over the last year and a half. Everyone at the college prefers flexibility,” the president observed. “We learned a great deal about faculty and student preferences and just how effective learning can be in an online environment.”
He pointed out that even before the arrival of Covid-19, one out of five MCC courses were online.
Enrollment is recovering from a significant Covid-related decline. “We watch that on a daily basis,” said Sisson. “We have been doing consistent periodic outreach to students who have stepped away from their education due to Covid-related concerns or unemployment. Our advising and our mentoring programs stay connected to students even if they drop out. When they are ready for us, we will be ready for them.
“During our outreach to students who were with us or who left us, they said they wanted the opportunity to come back to campus in a safe environment. They missed that sense of community.”
There are specific areas of study that require hands-on experience, Sisson continued. Information technology. Biotechnology. Health sciences. These students are “anxious to get back to the classroom.” Also particularly excited are “students who are brand new. This is their new college experience, no matter what they are taking.”
“A lot of our returning students are opting for online courses, hybrid courses,” he commented. “So we created a structured fall schedule that provides a lot of flexibility, a lot of choices. And we are learning from that.”
“We got students to be successful in online courses. We invested heavily in expanding our online capacity and are going to continue in that direction,” Sisson asserted.
He said that plans this fall call for the creation of some “high-flex” classrooms, which will use technology to create a hybrid environment for in-person as well as Zoom. They will be piloted in the spring. “It’s pretty much a national trend so that students can have an engaging experience.”
Several clubs and organizations and student activities remain online. Indeed, the gradual transition is “a mix of what we’re doing virtually and face-to-face, everything from admission tours to advising,” Sisson said.
Indeed, “the pivot happened with every program we provide,” such as MCC’s multicultural center, veterans center, and Asian students center. All of them are virtual and personal, he said. “The centers operate very successfully virtually. There are also going to be people hungry for in-person. We are redesigning those spaces but were cautious at the beginning. We want to make sure students coming back have access.”
Separately from the return to the conventional curriculum, the president said, Middlesex is promoting year-round opportunities for residents to “get skilled up and employed.”
Using the state Department of Labor’s regional blueprint, “we knew that information technology, advanced manufacturing, and health care are all critical needs in our region. We are already starting to do some post-pandemic training in high-demand areas. We want to help adults who have lost their jobs as unemployment benefits dry up.”
“We are also going to continue to expand our partnerships with high schools,” he continued, including opportunities for concurrent enrollment.
Sisson noted that the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges meet every Thursday. But the reopening plans are particular to each institution.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763