As Arapahoe Community College works to move diverse course offerings online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the transition is easier for some than others.
The Littleton-based community college, which serves more than 11,000 students, faces the task of developing distance learning to meet the needs of everyone from high schoolers to single parents to elderly students, in classes that run the gamut from English and math to automotive and phlebotomy.
Thankfully, the school had a good head start, said Rebecca Woulfe, the college’s vice president of instruction and provost.
ACC decided to include online components with every class during the swine flu epidemic of 2009, Woulfe said, including online gradebooks, syllabi and faculty contacts. About a quarter of the school’s courses already have online-only versions.
The decision to close the ACC campus came gradually in March, according to the college’s website. By March 25, with a statewide stay-at-home order issued, the college announced all courses would go online for the foreseeable future.
The challenge now, Woulfe said, is to figure out how to move hands-on education online.
“We’ve got science faculty doing labs in their kitchens and videotaping them,” Woulfe said. “It’s not the same, but we’re trying to get creative.”
The college’s career and technical education programs are a heavier lift. Students studying phlebotomy have to practice drawing blood from real arms, so they’re stuck with incompletes for this semester. The plan is to bring them back to complete their coursework over the summer — if campus is open by then.
The school is closed “until further notice,” and the spring graduation ceremony has been indefinitely deferred.
Other hands-on programs are scrambling to make the conversion. ACC’s police academy, which is accredited by numerous Colorado police departments, is moving online, but hasn’t yet settled on how to accomplish firearms skills tests and driving tests.
Perhaps ironically during the pandemic, with hospitals increasingly strained, ACC’s medical training programs are struggling to get students out the door and into clinical settings.
The nursing program, which trains both certified nursing assistants and registered nurses, is finding itself in the lurch as students are unable to complete clinical and practicum hours in medical facilities that are now barring admittance to anyone but patients and licensed personnel.
The program landed a big windfall on April 3, as the state Department of Regulatory Agencies agreed to allow virtual simulations to complete the CNA program, said Jennifer Blanchard, who heads ACC’s nursing program.
Now, Blanchard said, Colorado’s community colleges are lobbying the state nursing board to approve a similar waiver for the RN program. If the waiver isn’t approved, RN students will have to wait until summer or longer to complete their clinical hours.
“Our nursing students feel like they’re sitting ducks,” Blanchard said. “They’re eager to get out in the field. Some of them have jobs waiting for them this spring. They’ve been working toward this a long time.”
Blanchard said it’s critical that nursing students receive high-quality education, and she’s confident virtual simulations can accomplish that.
“Not every nursing student in a clinical setting is getting high-quality hands-on training,” she said. “With virtual simulations, we can ensure they’re being put to the test in a variety of challenging situations.”
There’s another snag: if the state doesn’t approve the waiver, students who take incompletes this semester will be guaranteed slots in upcoming semesters — which will set back the program, which typically operates with a long wait list. The medical field has a huge need for new nurses, and a backup would slow down the pipeline into a vital industry, Blanchard said.
But nurses are resilient, dedicated and creative, Blanchard said, and she’s confident the program will find a way.
“There was a lot of anxiety in our students, but after the first week of classes, things are improving,” Blanchard said. “They’re bold. They’re ready for a new and unique way to learn, and we’re here to give them what they need.”
Though some fields are seeing their coursework more easily transition online, challenges remain.
English faculty were well-positioned to shift online, said Monica Fuglei, the chair of the English department, but there is tumult in students’ lives.
“I don’t know if they have housing insecurity, food insecurity or job insecurity,” Fuglei said.
“Students have lost their jobs. They’re suddenly finding themselves home schooling their own kids. When you have such immediate needs, school is the first thing that gets set aside.”
Now is not the time to analyze whether online learning provides as robust of an education as classroom learning, she said.
“Don’t think of this as a pattern for the long term,” Fuglei said. “This is a crisis. We’re acting in a triage scenario. What are the distilled skills we can give to students, and what are the simplest ways to communicate those?”
ACC has done an exemplary job of meeting diverse student needs, Fuglei said, ranging from passing out laptops and wifi hotspots to students without internet access at home, to online counseling and connecting students to food pantries. Other departments, like the library, student success center and writing center, are stepping up too.
Fuglei said she’s working to weave the pandemic into her own composition class.
“We’ve been talking about it in class since the beginning of the semester,” she said. “I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and any time there’s a big crisis, for the next few years my students process it in their writing. I suspect I’ll be reading about this experience for years to come.”
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