Community College Governance and COVID-19

In the midst of a pandemic, what should community college boards consider in order to function and govern when things are changing by the day?

Most of the world has been affected by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Community colleges are in a unique position and face unique challenges as resource providers to their local communities and providers of high-quality higher education.

ACCT has reached out to member colleges to find out how they are responding to these events—what challenges they’ve faced, how they’ve coped, and what lessons are being learned. This is part of a series of topical articles that addresses these concerns, as specific to community colleges and their boards. This article series will be updated in real time as we learn more about how our nation’s most nimble educational institutions are adapting in real time.

This article focuses on college governance.

At Alamo Colleges District in Texas, 16-year district board veteran Roberto Zárate reported that his board has met once during this crisis but plans to meet again this week. “We postponed the regularly scheduled meeting to allow the chancellor time to implement the plan of action. He had to hustle to get it done, and we gave him that space,” says Zárate, a former chair of the ACCT Board of Directors and a current member of the AACC Board.

Earlier, Alamo’s Chancellor Mike Flores had set up a task force to limit the impact of this pandemic on the college and students. “The board reviewed and ratified the plan and then got out of his way,” stated Zárate. No board member is on this group, which is comprised of presidents of Alamo’s five colleges, risk managers, public information officers, administrators, etc.

The Washington State Association of College Trustees is currently looking at bylaws regarding alternatives for boards to meeting in person.

“Usually we do meetings through distance measures via WebEx, Zoom or conference calls since we are only nine members,” association director Kim Tanaka says. “If there is no quorum, they email out documents to the board for 10 days to respond. Nothing in our bylaws addresses this national disaster and inability to hold meetings. This summer, however, we plan to work on bylaws to accommodate surprise events like this thst are out of our control and prevents us from conducting regular business. We will work on policies that help to advise what to do immediately and what to do long term. What we do now is to keep colleges running.”

Like most of the colleges around the country, so many questions and issues are currently undetermined.  Tenure, for example is big issue. “Some colleges made the decision in March, but many are not yet ready to finalize decisions. How does the board meet with social distancing rules in place?” she asks.

 Board Directives

“Things are changing by the day,” stated North Central State College President Dorey Diab. No coronavirus cases are yet known at the college, but they are following the governor’s advisory. Moreover, in meeting with the board, Diab states that they have two priorities in this crisis:

  1. Assure safety of people first
  2. Fulfill our mission.

Other board directives include authority for the college to extend spring break, to train faculty to do online courses, equip students with learning materials to achieve learning outcomes, following social distance guidelines of six feet apart, at gatherings, labs, workstations, etc.

According to Diab, the college is not completely closed, but is practicing the safety guidelines for this pandemic.

Some other board/college considerations and actions include:

  • How should laboratory coursework be conducted? If the lab is essential, then social distancing is required, limiting the numbers of faculty and students to 10 (at this time) per room. This can have significant implications for scheduling, finances and other considerations.
  • Faculty are posting processes as YouTube videos to help students achieve learning-outcome goals.
  • Many clinicals have been cancelled per agency guidelines, and many are developing small cohort-based hands-on labs (not more than 10 people or lower in any space which must allow for social distancing).

President Diab stressed the significance of the board’s role. “The board does not rest. We met again on Wednesday. We are getting guidance from the attorney general of Ohio to hold teleconferences meetings. (Legislators have not yet acted.) The medical director gave us authority to have teleconferences. There is some telework, but most of the staff is on campus. “

 Policies and Board-CEO Partnerships in Action

Earlier in March, County College of Morris Board Chair Thomas Pepe called a special executive board meeting to provide some stability and direction to the campus over the COVID-19 crisis. “Board members, administrators and college attorneys reviewed drafts of policy written by our human resources vice president. With the talented people and attorneys on the board to tweak any legal issues, these polices passed almost instantly,” President Anthony J. Iacono stated.

On March 10, the County College of Morris board of trustees ratified two college polices, one on Infectious Disease Control Policy for College Employees and one on Infectious Disease Control Policy for County College of Morris Students. 

According to board members at the college, “The rapport between college administration and the trustee board is extremely tight and professional. This is a fact, and not just idle words. The president always maintains strong and constant communication.” The board is very comfortable with allowing the administration to handle all necessary procedures because the president keeps the board fully informed on a daily basis (sometimes more than once a day) and, in fact, the president considers the members of the board as partners through the issues.

Clark State Community College President Jo Alice Blondin added that, ironically, the college’s board of trustees updated its Interruption of College Operations’ policy at the March board of trustees meeting. 

“We had already completed an entire audit of our safety policies and procedures, and this policy was already planned to go forward;  however, another policy that we are considering is a teleworking/telecommuting policy, as we realize that while we give flexibility to certain positions, we do not have a campus wide policy and will need one."

Blondin also adds, "This pandemic is a new crisis and gives us an opportunity to reflect on new situations and what to do. Another lesson learned. Our most important resource at Clark State is our people—employees and students. We are doing everything possible to strike a balance between public safety and continuity of operations, and ensure that students are served and make it to the finish line.  Being decisive and communicating with one voice—the president and the board—will provide leadership and certainty when our employees need that most."

Lake Washington Institute of Technology President Amy Morrison ended her March 17 message with appreciation for all the college’s colleagues for their “thoughtfulness, innovative sprit and support of each other. And I truly can’t thank our trustees enough for having all of our backs as we navigate these unchartered waters together. We will get through this together.”

ACCT members are encouraged to contact ACCT with information about what your college is doing to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what lessons you have learned.

ACCT will continually update and expand resources as this unprecedented event evolves.

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