When Disruption Becomes the New Normal: Resilience and Connection within the Education Community

By Kellie Hale

Community colleges and universities across the state of Washington have all been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, instructors were ordered to move their classes online so students could complete their course work. Switching from a face-to-face setting to online teaching has not been easy for some instructors and students, particularly those who have never taught online or taken online courses. The lack of experience with online can be both daunting and stressful for students and instructors.

The instructors that I have been able to converse with have all expressed that they are essentially “exhausted” and “stressed.” I asked them, “How have operations changed due to COVID-19?” Darren Linker, Director of the Occupational Safety & Health degree program at Pierce College and Edmonds Community College shared with me in an interview, “The biggest impact for me is the adjustment to working from home, and the challenge of trying to work with all the different college administrative departments to solve problems when they are all working from home as well, and trying to figure out how to carry out colleges procedures.” It is understandable that with such a dramatic change to operations and procedures that there is an adjustment period everyone will have to go through.

According to Bobi Foster-Grahler, Program Director and Instructor for the Criminal Justice program at Pierce College said, “A lot of things have changed. For example, all our work is remote. Working with students has changed a lot. What would take 30 minutes to help a student now takes at least three hours. I think, for Pierce College at least, our administration is doing an amazing job of actually getting ahead of most things. They are trying to help out faculty, staff, and students to be successful inside of this crisis. But I think the main thing that it did is create a higher number of barriers for people. I think we are getting at it the more time we get into it.”

However, for some instructors the change has not impacted them as drastically as their colleagues. Ryann Leonard, Criminal Justice faculty at Big Bend Community College and Highline College revealed that for her, “very little has changed”. This is because Ryann had already been teaching online for several quarters. “The difference for me is I have set up more check-ins with students and have extended a bit more grace. More globally, my colleagues are stressed. They have been rushed to change their teaching radically without the proper time to even contemplate how they would transition successfully. They care about students and miss the face-to-face and are struggling on what to do for students who are not engaged.”

What about when a degree program was already established online? For the Homeland Security Emergency Management (HSEM) Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) and Associates degree programs, there have been very minimal changes since it is primarily an online program. I asked John Pennington, Program Director for the HSEM BAS degree program how operations changed since the degree program was already online? He responded with, “It really only impacted one particular course with the bachelor’s degree, and it has been a very easy transition for us, I would say, compared with other programs at Pierce College and really nationally. Every quarter we have one particular course that is grounded and is offered on Monday or Tuesday nights. We did that originally to satisfy requirements for those students who are funded under veteran services and veteran programs so that they are able to meet their full housing allowance. It is an interesting connection on how we have done this. We started off to help students meet their full housing eligibility. If they didn’t, as an example, our military students would probably lose around $900.00 per month if we didn’t help them meet those requirements and our professors stepped up.” John also mentioned that the Monday and Tuesday night classes were brought online for students to continue to take, along with being able to seek a waiver from the veterans administration that the courses would still help satisfy military students requirements to obtain their housing allowance.

What about students? How might they be coping with the changes? Program Specialist for the HSEM and Criminal Justice degree programs, Cindy Bassage explained that it depends on the student. She said, “I think the students that have worked online before are doing great, they have no problems. Those that have never taken online classes because they do not like online classes are stressing out.” It is no surprise that some students are feeling stressed, are having anxiety, and may be struggling with the rapid changes to their college education.

Another reason why students may be having difficulties with college campuses being closed is that they might not have the necessary resources at home to help them succeed in their studies (e.g. computer or Internet access). I asked Mary Weir, Program Manager for Prison-Based Education Criminal Justice at Highline College, if any of her students expressed whether they need assistance on getting the resources to complete their schoolwork. She said, “Highline has been able to distribute a lot of Chromebooks and hotspots. That has been hugely helpful to students,” and continued, “I have worked with students to try to access those items and it has been a wonderful resource. I still have had some students who just have spotty Internet. Recently, when I taught a class, I had one student holding up a sign saying that their computer froze, which led them to not be able to participate in the class discussion. But I think that the College is doing everything it can to help students, which is great. However, I think there are some students who are possibly slipping through the cracks. What I am doing personally, is sort of trying to extend more flexibility and trying to make sure that expectations are really clear.”

Where does education go from here? The overall opinion from each of the instructors I interviewed for this article is that colleges will not go back to its old normal but have to accept the new normal. They are primarily focused on making sure students get through the spring and summer quarters successfully. To put it bluntly, the traditional form of education as we know, might be dead. The future of education will need to have more flexibility and accommodations for students and instructors. There are many different outlets to be used when it comes to online teaching and online learning.

On the bright side (and there are bright sides to everything) with the disruptions to education from COVID-19 has shown that we can still build a strong community within the education system between staff, faculty, and students. It has been shown that we no longer have to be siloed or closed off but can be more open to the ideas of cross-collaborations and partnerships that can help grow our wonderful education community.

To read Darren Linker’s interview in its entirety, click here

To read Ryann Leonard’s interview in its entirety, click here

To view John Pennington’s interview in its entirety, click here

To view the Criminal Justice faculty interview in its entirety, click here