Silver Linings: Early Takeaways from the COVID-19 Pandemic Response at Community Colleges

Lessons learned

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 represents primary ‘silver linings’ that have been identified by most of the members to whom we’ve spoken. 

Cohesion and focus

Focus is critical for large and small institutions to function well in a crisis. Across the nation, boards work closely with their chancellors and college presidents to help colleges focus on two priorities—1) the safety and well-being of the college community and 2) student success. Shared values of both the board and the administration help presidents and the board focus and leverage all college resources to these two purposes.

This dual focus propels colleges to energize their emergency task forces and college administrations to take immediate action, modify operations, and to put their communications, safety and security plans, and board directives and polices into motion very quickly.  

While unprecedented, the coronavirus pandemic has showcased the core values of the community college sector to unify college efforts to provide equity and support to students, staff and the community to meet their college’s missions.

Tight bonds between the board and the CEO

To lead well, the trustees and the administration need to lead together in such stressful times. Boards are approving college emergency plans of action (whole and partial campus closures, extending spring vacations, online course delivery, suspending events and operations, etc.) and trusting and supporting college presidents efforts to implement the plans. Trustees are using their voices to make their institutions’ needs known and to advocate for needed supports for their institutions, their students and their communities.

In this time of pandemic stress, community college leadership and governance really shine when they act as a unit. As a leadership team, boards and presidents have had to communicate daily and act quickly together in unprecedented ways for such unprecedented times. To operate effectively highlights the importance of the close, trusting relationship and frequent communications critically needed between a board and the college president.

Planning Ahead

Prior to the outbreak of the virus, those colleges that had board policies, communications and emergency plans already in place were able to act immediately. For many of the colleges, having practice drills campus wide for emergency situations in the past helped a great deal to have the services work properly. Key to this are upgraded technology systems that are vital to the college’s response.

Colleges throughout the country are adapting to unprecedented demands, and are documenting events in real time so that lessons can be digested and accounted for moving forward.

Adapting to Disruption

Higher education has been discussing existential disruptions in the face of technological advances developing for several years now. Students of all ages currently finger-walk to higher learning with their phones and laptops to access information quickly from the internet, YouTube, social media, blogs, lectures, podcasts, and so on. Who would have expected that an invisible animal virus rather than a computer virus would wind up to be the biggest disruptor of them all to higher learning, compelling college staff and students to work and learn online?

Many of the leaders with whom we have spoken acknowledge that this crisis is an unfortunate but immediate way to mobilize most instruction and student services to digital formats. Except hands-on clinicals and labs, most of the nation’s community colleges are now offering classes online, upgrading faculty’s skills for online course development and student access to online tutoring, advising, and other services. For years, college libraries (where many computer labs are located) have been promoting online resources, search engines and research for both students and faculty. This pandemic shines light on the critical nature of technology and technical services to our colleges. The future of higher education may well depend on how equitably and how fast we can upgrade college systems.

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.

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