By SCTCC President Annesa Cheek
This is the time of year when high schools, colleges and universities typically celebrate milestone student achievement events such as commencements, pinning ceremonies and awards banquets. It is normally a time to share in the festivities of hard-won accomplishments and a bit of satisfaction that the job is done. Students sigh in relief that there will be no more homework or tests or projects, and parents smile with the pleasure at the fact that their child has made it to the next step in advancing on the socio-economic ladder that will influence the rest of their lives.
But alas, we are not in “normal” times. In fact, things are quite abnormal. In almost the blink of an eye, we have completely upended the traditional educational delivery system – not only locally but globally. Those practices and proven methods of effectively designing and delivering high quality and engaging experiences that facilitate student learning and development are being tested. In healthcare and finance and a host of other fields, the concept of a stress test is used to assess how well a system functions when subjected to greater than normal amounts of stress or pressure – the test is both a measure of health and capacity. In this COVID-19 world, all educational institutions are undergoing a stress test.
Friends and colleagues have been asking me over the last few months what I think the future of St. Cloud Technical & Community College will be in this new COVID world and what trends I see in higher education. I truly wish I had a crystal ball that would give me greater clarity in answering this question, but to borrow a response from my lawyer friends, “it depends” on how we choose to respond to three important factors.
First, locally, nationally and globally, we are staring an economic catastrophe right between the eyes. Every day we see unemployment claims rising at historic rates. This sadly confirms that many families, including many in our community, are or will be struggling. This is particularly true among those individuals and families who are among our community’s low-wage earners—those who don’t have any financial savings, and either cannot work because they are at higher-risk of contracting the virus due to health conditions or because they cannot work from home. Even before the pandemic, many of these individuals were living on the margins of society due in large part to longstanding racial disparities in health, income, housing and employment. These are the real life experiences of OUR students, OUR colleagues, OUR friends, OUR neighbors.
If residents can’t work, they can’t provide for their families, which results in lower income and property tax receipts, which will have a devastating effect on education at all levels. Schools were generally under-funded prior to COVID-19, and many will now be forced to make heart- breaking decisions in the coming months and year about staffing and services that will impact not just the school, but students, parents, the community and the overall fabric of the region.
With declines in funding, it will become even more challenging for us to fulfill our mission, which is rooted in the belief that our College exists to provide individuals with the training and education needed to successfully participate in our economy, our society and our democracy.
Second, our system of education is, in part, at odds with the evolving schedule of personal and community life. Work days and professional life are built largely around when students are in school; families rely on schools to be open and operating at full capacity to ensure not only a quality education for their children but to ensure students are in a safe environment while parents are working. Now it is unclear exactly how schools will reopen and operate under new protocols of physical distancing. Working parents, including many who study and work at SCTCC, wonder – dare I say worry –about how their traditional schedules will be realigned. It is likely that we will begin to rely more heavily on hybrid approaches to educational offerings with non-traditional schedules, compressed days and extended weeks and academic years.
Third, the attitude toward online and remote/distance learning will continue to evolve. Parents (myself included) have now become supplemental math, science, art and music teachers at home and have been forced to adapt to this new delivery method. There is certainly some educational snobbery afoot when it comes to online learning. Educators are very protective of their classrooms, and rightly so. The bond between student and teacher is the spark that ignites and fuels inquiry and learning, regardless of whether the environment is an early childhood (Pre-K), elementary, secondary or postsecondary setting. Now, however, the context for such exploration is different and somewhat foreign to educational practitioners and learners alike.
Operating in this new environment is forcing educators to re-examine all that they have been taught, all that they know to be good and right and all that they envision taking place in a teaching and learning environment. Let me be clear: Online learning, in and of itself, is not less than; it is not inferior; it is not inadequate. Behind every online course is a highly skilled and experienced educator who has taken special care to develop lessons and critical thinking opportunities for the student on the other side of the screen. I know this is not a “traditional” approach and there is some apprehension. However, like all things over time, the more we do it, the more we invest in it, the more we learn about it, the more comfortable we will become and the better it will be as a tool for quality teaching and learning. New traditions in teaching and learning can, will and must be realized.
When taken together, these factors present significant challenges and extraordinary opportunities for SCTCC. The prospect of losing substantial state funding is real and concerning. Even though the college is financially stable, any reduction in our two primary sources of revenue (state allocation and student tuition and fees) will have an impact on the college’s ability to serve students and the community. That being said, through adaptation and flexibility in when and how students are served, by identifying new audiences and markets to serve, and by leveraging new technology platforms that enhance the learning experience, the college has an opportunity to remold itself to fit the evolving needs of the community. How we schedule our courses will likely be different. You may see more early morning classes, more late evening classes, more Saturday and even Sunday classes to fit the needs of learners. We will build and grow our online and distance learning capacities to meet students where they are academically and personally. And we will seek to serve those individuals who heretofore had been employed but are now out of work, wrestling with new realities and looking for a path forward.
This stress test brought on by the pandemic will identify gaps, weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our operation (some of which have been present for many years), but it will not push us to our breaking point. The SCTCC team is a dedicated group of thoughtful professionals who are committed to finding a way or making a way to serve the broader needs of students and our community. Not only will we withstand the pressure of this stress test, but we will emerge from it stronger and better than ever – together.