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Perspective | Reflections on the pandemic from one community college president

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Lessons from the past school year. Plans for the year ahead. For EdNC’s Special Report, we asked leaders to share how the pandemic impacted education & what that means for the future. Read the rest of the series here.

In early 2020, soon after the pandemic brought about seismic changes to all the things we previously took for granted, an adjunct instructor, with tears in her eyes, stopped me on campus to express her fears for what the impending changes would mean for her students.

As colleges across the country closed their doors to on-campus learning and shifted to remote learning, this instructor, who had never taught an online course, didn’t feel prepared. Her fears were first and foremost that the shift may negatively impact her students and the quality of instruction in which she takes great pride.

Like so many educators over the last 12 months, she worked tirelessly to make sure her students received quality instruction. She also shifted from teacher to student to acquire the knowledge and skills to become an online instructor.

This is one of many similar experiences I’ve had over the last year. Some students worried they weren’t ready for online classes. Some students were dealing with health or financial difficulties due to COVID-19. There were so many unanticipated issues, and really no precedent for navigating the challenges.

Yet, time after time I watched our campus and community band together, put in the extra work, and make the best out of a terrible situation. All areas of the college came together to find ways to provide online services — from tutoring and advising to student activities and counseling.

During a time when personal protective equipment was scarce, staff and faculty also found ways to utilize dormant 3D printers and equipment in our technology labs for designing and manufacturing plastic face shields for local health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic response.

There are too many examples to list them all. In my nearly 30 years in higher education, I’ve never been prouder of our students, our faculty and staff, and our community.

We learned so much as a college and as a community about the importance of flexibility, creativity, and working together for the greater good. Though there were many challenges in 2020 and 2021, we appreciate the new partnerships that developed and the existing partnerships that were strengthened during this difficult time.

The college worked closely with our local K-12 schools, health officials, and industry to minimize the impact of and respond appropriately to COVID-19.

Our leadership team regularly consulted local health officials to inform our decisions about safety protocols and reopening our campuses. That relationship also enabled us to respond to their needs when vaccination efforts began. Our nursing and medical assisting students and faculty volunteered to help, which greatly increased the local health department’s capacity to vaccinate.  

Google, which has a data center in nearby Lenoir, didn’t hesitate when I asked for their help. At the start of the pandemic, our students’ greatest need was technology to access online learning. Google immediately shipped a supply of Chromebooks to our campus, which we distributed to students who needed help finishing the spring semester.

Through the CONNECT project, also funded by Google, Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute installed distance learning classrooms at three of our local high schools. The technology enables a teacher at one location to deliver instruction to students at any of the three high schools, including Career and College Promise courses at CCC&TI. This project allows us to provide more courses by linking to those schools directly. One instructor can reach students in multiple off-site classrooms. In a time when flexibility and efficiency are paramount, the opportunities with this technology are endless.

Through proactive action and diligent planning, CCC&TI was able to minimize the impact of the pandemic — both from health and operational standpoints. CCC&TI was one of a few community colleges statewide that had enrollment growth from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

At a time when challenges were plentiful, and options and resources were limited, the faculty, staff, and students of CCC&TI showed tremendous grit and proved time and again the power of community.

And perhaps the most important realization I’ve had in the last year is the value of surrounding yourself with the best people and cultivating relationships in your community that make a difference when times get tough. No doubt, the last 12 months would have had much different results without them. 

Mark Poarch

Mark Poarch is the president of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute.