Beyond COVID: Expect a ‘click and mortar’ approach as colleges emerge from the pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic closed college campuses in March of 2020, administrators initially hoped that some normalcy would return by the fall semester. That did not happen. Some schools that reopened dormitories had to shut them down again. Others did not reopen their campuses at all, continuing classes online.

Every pandemic in human history has ended, though, and as vaccines are distributed and visions of a COVID-free future are maintained, college officials are reviewing what was lost, learned and accomplished during the past year.

Partnerships formed during the crisis will remain post-pandemic, according to Michael Giampietro, vice president for finance and administrative services at Bay Path University in Longmeadow.

“From the very beginning, the health and safety of our entire community was our main priority,” Giampietro said. “We developed our Guiding Principles and a Community Compact that students signed agreeing to individual and collective responsibility to keep our community safe. Continual and accessible testing was and still is the cornerstone of our COVID response plan.”

He continued: “We were extremely fortunate to form a partnership with Caring Health Center in Springfield — together, we established a very successful testing site on our campus. It’s a relationship I know will continue in the future.”

Institutions agree remote learning will remain a part of academic curricula moving forward. So will health protocols, said Springfield College Chief of Staff Kathy Martin.

“Balancing the flexibility that Zoom and other online platforms offer with the highly desired and effective face-to-face educational and occupational experiences that students and employees value and expect is an opportunity for us (in the) post-pandemic reality,” Martin said.

At Westfield State University, “we definitely see the value in more frequent surveillance COVID-19 testing and further de-densification of residence halls,” said Chief of Staff Tricia Oliver. “We have incorporated both into our plans for the Spring 2021 semester.”

Western New England University President Robert E. Johnson said he was proud the school was one of about 27% of the nation’s institutions that resumed in-person learning in the fall. Another was Springfield College.

“Keeping the majority of our students on campus for the fall semester was an extraordinary achievement that took the dedication and commitment of all involved, especially our students,” said Springfield College President Mary-Beth Cooper.

“Through it all, I was — and am — grateful for the way that colleges and universities across the state came together to share information, ideas, and strategies so we could all benefit from shared intelligence and wisdom.”

After the pandemic, Johnson said, the time-honored tradition of brick-and-mortar college will give way to a new “click-and-mortar” model.

“For traditional age students, in-classroom teaching will remain, but there will be more online and hybrid courses and programs taught,” he said.

“Today’s confluence of crisis has created a space for a reset for the way we work,” Johnson said. “It has shown us just how critical it is to provide students with the foundational skillset to be agile in a rapidly changing world.”

It has also put greater focus on students’ mental health.

“We know that students are experiencing greater levels of stress, anxiety, and depression during pandemic times,” Johnson said. “Refining and adding capacity for our services to students and our resources for employees will be a priority.”

With mental health mind, Western New England had a surprise “No Snow, Snow Day” in October to give everyone a break.

“It was received largely with delight,” Johnson said. “It provided an opportunity to take the pressure off, and for students, to have some (safe) fun with entertaining programming.”

The pandemic accelerated academic changes that were already underway at Bay Path.

“Even before the pandemic, there were intense pressures on higher education to more completely serve the students of today,” said President Sandra J. Doran, who like Johnson began her tenure in the middle of the pandemic.

According to Higher Learning Advocates, 37% of today’s college students are older than 25. Almost two-thirds work while in college, about 25% are parenting and 49% are financially independent from their parents.

“We know that this pandemic has had a significant impact on high school students, who may need a boost to be college ready,” Doran said. “We are looking at creatively planning ways to prepare these students for college through ‘boot camps,’ partnerships with schools, and other initiatives.”

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal observes changes in both two- and four-year schools.

“Today’s students seek a path to degree completion that recognizes the fact that life is complicated,” she said. “Flexible schedules, varied semester length, hybrid courses, 24/7 access to student support resources, and mentors that remain with you every step of the way will become more the norm.”

HCC offered multiple, flexible start dates during the fall 2020 semester. “That is an acknowledgement of all that is happening in the lives of our students. We’re continuing that for the Spring 2021 semester,” Royal said.

Westfield State’s Oliver said remote education was not as new as the pandemic made it seem, though the scourge pushed it to the forefront.

“Online learning has been part of our course delivery for more than a decade,” she said. “Having gained greater skills around online learning certainly positions us to expand those offerings, even when we transition back to more on-ground learning, once conditions permit.”

Most Westfield State students prefer to be on campus for the “full college experience,” Oliver said.

Bay Path’s Giampietro said keeping employees, students and families informed was critical.

“One can’t communicate enough,” he said. “In our case, we used every platform possible to get our message out and will continue to do so in the spring semester.”

For people feeling isolated, Royal said, too much communication was better than not enough.

“Being available to answer questions in real time was a way for everyone to cope and feel less stressed,” she said. Royal envisions a greater partnership between two- and four-year institutions, notably involving distance-learning courses.

“Pre-pandemic, remote or online courses were not always accepted for credit transfer, especially to some of the more competitive private colleges our graduates often attend after graduating from Holyoke Community College,” she said. “That has now changed.”

For all the hardships, sacrifices and adjustments, administrators share a common conviction that the pandemic has made them stronger, more aware of their mission, more sensitive to the human needs of students and staff, and more willing to pivot to different forms of delivering an education.

They say that won’t change, even when the pandemic is over — hopefully sometime in 2021.