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Perspective | Going above and beyond — Inspirations from community colleges during COVID-19

In November 2020, Dr. Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, seated in her cozy office lined with books and binders, looked into her webcam and spoke to an audience of about 700 community college leaders, faculty, and researchers about what a “flash of lightning in the night” the COVID-19 pandemic has been for the sector. The pandemic revealed deep social, racial, and economic inequities among community college students. However, the pandemic also revealed an extraordinary adaptable, caring, and creative community that summoned strategies to meet students’ needs.

These strategies and initiatives were implemented quickly at the beginning of the pandemic and provide hope, but what will be the future of community college education? Eddinger’s recent W. Dallas Herring Lecture hosted by the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research (Belk Center) offers some insight to this question in her address titled, Insights from the Pandemic: The Reckoning and the Hope at our Nation’s Community Colleges. We noticed that her thoughts rang true to findings from a survey of community college employees across North Carolina as they adjusted to the new reality of teaching and learning during a pandemic and affirmed Eddinger’s assertion of community colleges: “There is no other sector that has a better chance to achieve equity, economic vibrancy, and social justice.” 

The Belk Center at North Carolina State University wanted to assess how community college employees were managing their professional and personal experiences during the pandemic and help other colleges define and meet their current and future needs. The Employee Perspectives During Times of Uncertainty survey was developed with the goal of providing actionable data to support decision-making and planning for the upcoming semesters. The survey was open to all colleges in the North Carolina Community College System and distributed to employees at 21 colleges in May 2020. 

As we compiled information for the participating community college presidents, we were inspired by the efforts and commitment of our community college colleagues. Over 4,200 employees responded. We highlight the impressive support community college faculty, administrators, and staff offered to students inside and outside the classroom.

The passage of the federally funded Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act at the end of March allocated almost $14 billion in emergency funding for higher education. Community colleges in North Carolina used the funds to enhance technology, directly address financial insecurity, and adapt mental-health offerings. Several colleges created CARES teams to maintain contact with students after the transition to online learning that provided not only academic support, but personal support as well. Employees went above and beyond, reaching out to students through phone, email, and any other way possible to determine their needs.

One employee noted: “[Employees] hand delivered packets to student[s] and ma[de] [sure] student[s] [are] aware of online assistance to help…it is a great example of meeting students where they are and wrapping around support.” CARES act funding provided the means for community colleges to further support students in these difficult times.

The pandemic also brought high unemployment levels (12-13%) to North Carolina in April and May, which was almost triple from the first few months of the year. Community colleges had to address the challenges faced by students who lost their jobs or were facing financial insecurity because a majority of students (62% of full-time students and 72% of part-time students) work while attending school. Eddinger acknowledged the difficult decisions community college students face as they “walk a tightrope balancing daily survival and aspirations for economic advancement.”

Our state’s community colleges demonstrated remarkable flexibility with financial resources by reexamining and changing their fee structures, reinstating unused scholarship funds to student accounts, and implementing a grade of withdrawal emergency that would not penalize students’ financial aid if they needed to drop a course. Whether community colleges used funding from the CARES Act or raised additional gifts through their advancement teams, emergency grants awarded to students made the difference between quitting or continuing their education. One employee spoke about what emergency grants can do for students: “Offering students emergency grants has helped some students stay in school when they would have had to withdraw otherwise.”

Many community colleges also created or raised additional gifts for their food pantries to address the increasing financial need. Food pantries became curbside grocery pick-up centers with drop off and drive by options. Some food pantries even began to distribute vouchers, gift cards, or technology products in addition to bags of food. One employee noted: “The college has also instituted a weekly food distribution program to provide students with a bag of non-perishable food items.”

We heard about the unique role community colleges have in their communities when Dr. Eddinger remarked: “Community college education is no longer a standalone. We are the social and education hub for communities.” North Carolina community colleges exemplified this as they strengthened partnerships with other community agencies to address food insecurity, serving as a bridge between students and existing resources to assist with food or other basic payments. 

Despite the numerous ways community colleges were helping students, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of students. Eddinger recounted something she hears at her own institution: “Students are not broken, they are just navigating a broken system.” The pandemic forced colleges to adapt their counseling and health services to be offered through telehealth options. They created easy-to-find crisis support web pages for students to find information about services all in one place.

We heard from one community college: “Professional counseling services hold mindfulness events twice a month along with individual services.” Another employee at a different college revealed that a “clinical social worker provided an online resilience discussion with learning materials.” Many faculty and staff conducted wellness checks with students with early alert technology and through email and phone to help students feel connected despite being socially distant. 

Despite the overwhelming obstacles of the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of North Carolina community colleges has been remarkable. Employees served as change agents to implement
rapid needs in the beginning of the pandemic. The employee comments shared above are only a few highlights of the numerous ways community colleges were responsive and nimble to support students and the campus community. Eddinger challenged her colleagues to “seize this moment of clarity to think anew about our role as colleges in our community and how we can be agents of change in the coming decade.”

The changes made to continue supporting our students should not be cast aside once this crisis ends. Sustainability of the services provided by community colleges will require support from the communities that we serve. As community colleges embrace the role of being a collaborative hub within their regions, state leaders should support them for their work throughout North Carolina and for developing the state’s future workers. As Eddinger declared in her Dallas Herring lecture, “Community colleges … are the social and educational hub for our communities.”

Laura G. Maldonado

Laura G. Maldonado, Ph.D., is a senior research associate at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at NC State. She provides writing and data coaching to doctoral students in the Community College Leadership program and supports research and evaluation projects on community college student success.

Holley Nichols

Holley Nichols is a research associate at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at NC State. She is a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development program at NC State.

Kristen Johnson

Kristen Johnson is an Associate Professor of Biology at Guilford Technical Community College. She is a doctoral student in the Community College Leadership program at NC State.