Advising and Supporting Our Students in the Time of COVID-19

Community colleges are scrambling to adapt to delivering courses online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not just the classroom that’s adapting.

Community colleges are scrambling to adapt to delivering courses online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not just the classroom that’s adapting. Advising, career guidance, and wraparound supports are all moving to remote connections with students. How can colleges continue to engage and support students who they can’t see face to face right now? 

On April 15, New America held a webinar with sector leaders to find out. The panel of practitioners and researchers shared both practical ideas for community colleges to implement in student affairs and student services in this time, as well as personal encouragement for our staff who invest in students’ success and well-being every day. 

Over the course of the webinar, three key strategies for remote student support emerged. 

1. Don’t hesitate to reach out to students. 

Colleges may be concerned that students are overwhelmed and therefore hesitant to reach out. And while students are likely overwhelmed, our panelists are finding that students are actually welcoming contact from their college. Jan Pomeroy, director of post-traditional student services at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota, said it best: “Students want and need to know that they are not alone.” Rather than drawing back, now is the time to make every effort to stay connected to students. 

While the panel agreed that using multiple modalities--phone, email, text, and more--to reach out to students is best practice, texting seems to be a good starting point. Dave Jarrat of InsideTrack suggested sending students check-in texts inviting simple, numeric responses to share how they’re faring: 1: Doing well. 2: Stressed, but handling it. 3: Stressed and want to talk. Advisers and other student support staff can then follow up with students based on their response. 

2. Think broadly when identifying and meeting student needs. 

We’re all trying to operate in a strange, new world during the pandemic. Community college students, instructors, and staff are all experiencing exacerbated or different needs at the same time that our means of delivering support have changed. This situation requires enormous flexibility and patience on the part of colleges. 

Renee Scheering, an academic advisor at Salt Lake Community College, is seeing a predictable shift in topics of conversation with her advisees. “Now I'm really talking to them more about life situations and the fact that they're doing school with their kids. Some of my students are essential employees that are out working. With their fears and all the different things that they're navigating right now, I’m helping them to understand they're not in it alone and sharing what the college can offer them.” Sometimes, as several panelists pointed out, students need to talk through emerging life needs before discussions about class and career plans.  

In addition to personal support from caring advisors like Renee, many community college students are struggling with tech needs as instruction has moved to online delivery. Colleges are innovating to ensure students have what they need. Anoka-Ramsey is creating Wi Fi networks in parking lots to increase quality broadband access for their rural student body, and Richard Stephenson and his colleagues at Jefferson College in Missouri rapidly built a laptop and hotspot loan program for students and even instructors to fully participate in the online learning environment.

3. Build community with each other. 

Community college students are likely to be experiencing additional stressors during the pandemic, and so are staff. One theme that emerged in last week’s webinar was the need for teamwork and community within and across institutions. 

As with outreach to students, our panelists encouraged the audience to reach out to colleagues with questions, needs, and resources. Renee Edwards of Rutgers University shared insights on professional community from her research on the Consortium for Health Care Education Online (CHEO), a group of eight community colleges formed through a Great Recession-era federal TAACCCT grant. Member colleges, from Alaska to Wyoming, were mostly rural and widely dispersed. However, student success coaches from each institution formed a learning community, with regular check-in calls and meetings. Individual coaches reached out to one another outside of formal meetings, seeking support and ideas from their trusted peers in the consortium. We find ourselves in a place now where enormous stress is weighing on our staff as well. We need each other, and colleges should take this lesson from CHEO to foster supportive community for staff both inside the college and with peers from other community colleges. 

The panel of practitioners on last week’s webinar provided practical strategies for community colleges to support and engage students moving forward. Our strengths as a sector lie in our welcome of all students and in our personal support of our students and their goals. Community colleges will continue to be critical hubs of resources, training, and community cohesion as the pandemic goes on and eventually subsides. 

Ivy Love is a Policy Analyst, Center on Education & Skills at New America.

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline