by Kathryn Milhorn
As summer winds to a close most of us turn our minds to the classroom. Supply lists pop up in every store and back-to-school specials abound. But Autumn 2020 is …let’s just say… unique.
With classes starting soon, our regional colleges and universities are working hard to develop a safe, healthy way to welcome students back. A recent statement from the Washington Student Achievement Council on behalf of Washington Colleges and Universities acknowledges times are tough. “Everyone—students, families, communities, and institutions—is experiencing the extraordinary circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic together. We recognize the hard work of making college a reality; we mourn with you what may be missed—ceremonies, recognitions, research, study abroad—and we understand the uncertainty that still lies ahead. We also strongly believe that living through this crisis will strengthen the resiliency of Washington students for years to come.”
Locally, the Evergreen State College, South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC) and Saint Martin’s University (SMU) spent the last few months hard at work to meet the needs of students, faculty and families during the crisis.
“Evergreen officially moved to all-remote in March of 2020 after in-person instruction was halted in Washington State,” explains Christine Hoffmann, Manager of Public Relations and Outreach at Evergreen. “Faculty and staff utilized the weeks between Winter Quarter and Spring Quarter to pivot to a new way of teaching and learning. Training sessions were provided to help faculty and students adapt to the new remote environment.”
With start dates just around the corner, staff remain diligent. “Our faculty and staff have been working hard over the summer to design remote programs and courses for Fall Quarter with activities that build a peer-community and translate our high-impact model into effective online teaching and learning,” says Hoffmann. “Most of Evergreen’s classes will be offered remotely and in-person learning will be limited. In-person activities that do take place will do so with appropriate health and safety measures, including physical distancing. In addition to efforts to adapt teaching and learning, extensive planning is happening to help students and employees stay safe. This includes careful consideration of how we might return to campus when it’s safe to do so.”
SPSCC faculty and staff also worked hard to adapt and evolve. “We were able to make a fairly rapid transition to online learning,” admits President Timothy Stokes.
“Our students have been requesting more online options for the last several years, so many of our faculty already had experience online and we already had the technology in place. Thanks to a great support team and faculty-to-faculty mentoring, we started spring quarter online for every program, even our most technical, hands-on programs.”
Dr. Stokes hopes this successful turnaround continues. “For fall quarter, we are keeping as many classes online as we can. For our hands-on classes and programs we have thorough safety plans and procedures in place that will get some students back in the classroom. Safety is a top priority for us, and we are committed to making sure our students stay healthy, get the best education possible and stay on track to graduate.”
Saint Martin’s University is implementing an integrated approach. Programming begins in August but then switches to remote learning after Thanksgiving break. To prepare for this, faculty spent the summer preparing for the transition. “We did our best to support the efforts to prepare all faculty for teaching this fall,” says Kate Boyle, SMU’s Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs. “Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, faculty need to be ready for all possible scenarios–teaching face-to-face, teaching online, teaching hybrid and teaching partially face-to-face with the possibility to pivot online or hybrid, at some point if needed. Each of these teaching modes requires a set of skills and planning that fits the specific medium and the nature of the course content. Each requires a different teaching approach and planning.”
To address this, everyone pitched in. “Many faculty spend their summers working on writing and research projects, preparing their advancement portfolios, and finding some time to recharge,” says Boyle. “This summer, we asked faculty to join academic committees to plan for fall and to participate in professional development programs, so that we can provide an excellent and unique experience to the students who may otherwise be considering taking a gap year or taking online classes elsewhere.”
Heading off to college is both exciting and scary, thrilling and bittersweet. But this year’s journey carries an extra dose of uncertainty. SPSCC’s Dr. Stokes says it best. “We are incredibly proud of the determination and effort that our students have shown to stick with their educational goals. College is hard work even in the best of times and many of our students face significant barriers to earning their degree. The fact that so many of them are continuing to work, support their families, navigate life in a historic pandemic and thrive in school is truly a testament to just how amazing they are and how much education means to them.”