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How Virginia’s Community Colleges Responded to a Global Pandemic and Found Light at the end of the Tunnel

The world changed when COVID reached our shores. Masks became necessities and folks everywhere were advised to keep their distance from friends and even family members.

The virus and its attending restrictions had a profound impact on the nation’s economy. Unemployment levels soared as millions of Americans were given pink slips. Enrollments at public and private colleges nationwide plummeted. Some institutions were forced to close down.

Community colleges in particular, were especially hard-hit. The decline in the number of full and part-time students was one of the sharpest in decades. Nationwide, enrollments were down a whopping 10-percent.

Virginia’s Community Colleges recognized quickly that the road to recovery would require substantive changes to our business model – instruction had to adapt to a changing environment if we were to fulfill our obligation to our students and the communities our 23 colleges serve.

In this case, adaptation involved sharpening our focus on the virtual learning experience. A limited number of courses were already available online pre-COVID-19. The challenge was to convert the majority of them while maintaining the quality and academic rigor to which we and our students have grown accustomed.

In September of 2020, we launched a podcast series entitled Inside Virginia’s Community Colleges that was designed to showcase our online learning options.

Steve Mullen

Steve Mullen

When organizers first met to discuss the project, Steve Mullen, president of EndGame PR, host and producer of the series, says the situation on the ground was changing rapidly.

“At about the same time, colleges and universities across Virginia began shutting down as a result of the virus. It was a coincidence but one we didn’t want to ignore. So, we incorporated the colleges’ response to the pandemic in our series and made that Season Two.”

Even though the scope of the project had expanded, Mullen says they kept their focus on addressing the needs of today’s students in a virtual environment.

“In the first season, it really struck me how learning from home is such a fantastic option for students with families and jobs. Without that option, many people wouldn’t be able to take classes at all.”

Mullen readily acknowledges he’s no expert. But he feels a virtual course should be treated just like a traditional classroom.

“What that means is that you must remove distractions. In a traditional classroom, you wouldn’t have the ability to stop in the middle to do a load of laundry or finish a TV show you want to watch. You need to set aside learning time that is just for learning.”

Hannah Robinson

Hannah Robinson

Hannah Robinson, a consultant with the Hodges Partnership, worked closely with Mullen to produce the project. Mining actionable information from a litany of sources and interpreting that data is her specialty. She says Virginia’s Community Colleges implemented changes in course delivery that were both innovative and practical.

“I think it’s obvious the chancellor, faculty members and everyone else involved in the effort wanted to make access equitable. Converting campus parking lots to wi-fi hubs so students who didn’t have Internet access could get online was just one example of meeting student needs.”

Equally essential, Robinson says, was making the individual student feel as if they were as important as the degree or certificate they were pursuing.

“Unlike a university-type atmosphere where students can sometimes feel like a number, our community colleges recognized that many students are working two or more jobs while simultaneously taking care of their families. Making those individual connections and keeping those relationships going was a very important piece of the puzzle.”

The podcast series looks at a variety of topics and includes a handful of student success stories that Mullen says are both timely and inspirational.

“Season one, episode six, we met Todd Hill, who has a family and a career but is working toward a law degree by taking remote classes from Southwest Virginia Community College. Another great student success story was in season two, episode four. In that episode, Conner Henderson told us how he learned about his aptitude in welding while attending classes at Eastern Shore Community College.”

Putting the series together was no small feat, says Robinson. She and Mullen were effectively joined at the hip for months.

“Steve and I had to build-out all the scripts, make edits and secure all the necessary approvals. Additionally, we had to promote the episodes on social media to make sure our messaging was getting through to the right audience.”

The Pandemic Podcast series is ongoing. You can find the latest episode or binge the content here.

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