More and more colleges and universities are moving classes online and closing campuses as precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.
But some experts are concerned about the potential effects on colleges with fewer resources, like regional and community colleges, and their students.
“I think everybody’s worried,” said Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a membership organization for regional state colleges. “This is something that people have not really experienced in a big way.”
Several community colleges have canceled in-person classes in Washington State, where more than 160 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Shoreline Community College, about 12 miles north of Seattle, switched to remote learning for most courses on Tuesday.
“No one can practice for something like this,” said Cheryl Roberts, president of the college. But Shoreline had a head start on preparations, as well as some past practice in moving courses online.
The college activated an infectious disease protocol and started working on a continuity of business plan when the outbreak began in China weeks ago, Roberts said. Shoreline also dealt with “snowmageddon” last year, which helped prepare faculty and the college for moving to online platforms quickly.
The department that handles online learning held extra trainings last week for faculty members, she said, and there is extra support available for students as well. While there are fewer than 10 people in the department, Roberts said they are prepared for an uptick in demand.
Another concern is students who may not have access to computers or internet connections at home. For many low-income students, their device is a smartphone. Shoreline is repurposing 70 laptops from its computer labs for students to borrow, Roberts said, and campus services like the library and online tutoring will remain open.
Staff are currently working on a plan for if the campus has to go completely remote for a long period of time. This includes connecting students with community services for food and finding ways to deliver checks for those who apply for emergency funds.
They’re also thinking about how to ensure online platforms are accessible for students with disabilities, and how to offer counseling remotely as students deal with stress from this disruption.
The college is also trying to develop a live chat system so that students will have still have “high-touch” service in a high-tech system, Roberts said.
“People’s needs aren’t going to go away,” she said.
In fact, students’ needs might increase.
“I think students will have a harder time finishing the semester because these changes will be so disruptive,” said Rebecca Anne Glazier, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Because regional and community colleges generally serve less privileged populations, Glazier expects many will wait to close campuses until they feel they have to. Closures of school districts could prompt that, she said.
If that happens, many students could have to juggle childcare and getting access to courses online. Lower-income students who work on their phones may have limited data plans, which may not be enough to suddenly handle online coursework and lectures for all of their classes.
If colleges end up closing campus housing and sending students home, there have to be supports for helping students with those transportation costs, said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust. There’s also the question of whether institutions are prepared to reimburse students for housing costs.
“I think it could have a differential impact on students, especially students who are the most vulnerable,” Del Pilar said.
There also could be economic effects, Glazier said. Working students might have their shifts cut if people are staying home and not using services. Those in the service industry might get fewer customers and thus fewer tips.
“As professors, we just need to recognize how many pressures our students are under,” she said. “Maybe just give a little bit of grace.”
Colleges in rural areas might be better prepared for this than people would expect, though, according to Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance.
These institutions often have to deal with weather disasters, like fires and tornadoes, Smith said.
“I think we face a lot of risks in that way,” he said. “Certainly our emergency plans are very active.”
For the most part, rural areas also have access to high-speed internet, as well, Smith said. Nearly all rural colleges have some offering of online courses already, he added.
But concerns remain over the other resources students have. Garcia, from AASCU, pointed out that many students at regional colleges are low income, and while many institutions have policies for loaning laptops, it may not be enough to cover everyone who needs one.
At Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, a statewide community college system, staff are working on a plan in the event they need to close completely, according to Jon Barefoot, assistant vice president for public safety and emergency preparedness. That includes figuring out how to make support services available. He doesn’t know the exact need for loaner laptops, for example, but he knows the current supply is limited.
Fortunately, the system had already been working on business continuity planning before the coronavirus infection started to spread, and faculty already were encouraged to keep backup plans and lessons in the learning management system for times they are sick.
Still, working at a community college system with fewer resources than elite private institutions, Barefoot said they know that “we won’t have the ability to waste resources” in times of crisis.
If they start moving classes online or close campuses, staff will start tracking expenses to hopefully be reimbursed by the state or federal governments, he said. Shoreline Community College is already tracking expenses, Roberts said.
Beyond the logistics and technical issues, some experts are also concerned with how this could affect learning, especially for traditionally underserved students.
For coursework that’s entirely online, students who aren’t well prepared tend to not do as well, according to Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research institution. These students tend to be lower income, students of color and men.
“If you don’t already know how to study and learn, then you’re going to struggle with a purely online course,” Baum said.
If students were in corequisite courses and suddenly get moved online, they’ll lose that additional help, Del Pilar added. Many colleges haven’t figured out how to move those additional supports online, he said.
Synchronous classes -- those that have all students log on at once to listen to a professor in real time -- are better than asynchronous classes to prevent this, she said. But it mostly comes down to building relationships between faculty and students.
Sending personal emails, calling students by name and working on discussion boards in real time can help students engage with online courses more, Glazier said.
Still, online courses have a retention gap of about 10 to 40 percent across disciplines and colleges compared to face-to-face courses, she said.
“I think we’ll have to pay real close attention and learn from the situation,” Garcia said. “Those who are less resourced, we need to figure out better ways of taking care of them.”