Jackson College was one of the first institutions to make the call. Daniel Phelan, the Michigan community college’s president, said he made the decison in March to go virtual for the summer and fall semesters, and the school posted a notice on its website in early April saying it would be fully online for the rest of the calendar year.

Other institutions waited months to decide whether to stay virtual or reopen campus for the fall, with some announcing their plans just a few weeks before the term began. And several colleges started the fall in person only to move back to online classes after coronavirus outbreaks on their campuses. 

To some extent, Jackson College has had the opposite experience. Although the school announced in the spring it would be “100% online” in the fall, it has offered some lab-based, in-person courses that would be difficult to replicate online, such as those for its welding and nursing programs. The school has invested about $35,000 in online classes and infrastructure and $30,000 for campus upgrades for in-person courses, excluding labor costs, Phelan said. 

This fall, it also plans to hold several lecture-style courses on campus in socially distanced classrooms as a test of whether students and employees will follow safety protocols. “If things don’t look good for fall and it looks like there are some challenges, we will just put those land-based courses by the boards,” Phelan said.

Phelan added that taking a “long-ball view” is critical to making decisions during the pandemic. “I don’t think we’re going to see this herd inoculation at levels that present some (amount) of assurance or safety for some time,” Phelan said. “As the college’s executive working for a board that expects me to keep people safe, I have no other choice but to think long-term.”

Education Dive spoke to Phelan about whether the early decision to go online paid off and how the college has addressed other challenges presented by the crisis. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

EDUCATION DIVE: We’re seeing a lot of colleges reverse their reopening plans or pivot back to virtual instruction after seeing coronavirus outbreaks on their campuses. How did your early decision to go online for the fall term help you prepare? 

Daniel Phelan

Jackson College

 

PHELAN: If I had said, “Let’s wait and see,” we wouldn’t have taken this essential time leading up to the fall to invest as we needed and to have our employees come on campus and get the cameras and equipment they needed. Declaring to all my employees that we’re going to be predominantly online for the whole academic year created a level of seriousness and focus that said, “I need to make sure that my online course is robust, high quality and merits the name of Jackson College.” 

Some faculty came on campus and shot videos in their chemistry and science labs because there was not enough video material out there. It allowed our employees to focus and do what was essential now, before the push comes for the entire academic year. 

What kinds of investments did you make in your online classes and infrastructure? 

We’ve invested a lot in purchasing laptops and Wi-Fi equipment. We basically stripped out every computer lab to put those devices in our students’ hands. We purchased simulation software for our faculty so they can provide a high-quality academic experience for students. 

How are students chosen for the ground-based courses being offered?

That’s first come, first served. We have student success navigators working with all the students. They say, “If you want to take these ground-based classes, here are the protocols that will be on campus. You have to come in through our checkpoint. You have to do the orientation. You have to read these documents. You have to strictly adhere to these protocols and failure to do so will lead to your removal from the courses.” 

We’re looking for people who are willing to trade off or surrender extra liberties and opportunities in favor of pursuing their academic careers.

Why are you conducting a limited test of ground-based courses instead of putting these protocols in place for all classes? 

There was a large desire for students to come back. We’ve been surveying employees, we’ve been surveying students, we’ve been having focus groups. Sometimes what you want is impossible, so we have been working with our students and educating them by saying, “We want to help you get your degree, we want to help you not lose any ground, we want to help you achieve your goals. But we’ve got to have some trade-offs here, and we need you to commit to those.” 

I’ve often said to our employees, the moment that it appears we’re incapable of changing our behaviors and living in a different kind of space for a while, we’ll go back to a completely online experience. 

But to be able to have these prototype classes take place, to have the ground-based labs that are necessary for degree completion, we’ve got to surrender some of our personal freedoms for a broader collective gain.

The U.S. Department of Education allocated Jackson College about $3.9 million in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, half of which had to go to students. How is that money being used?

We immediately put half toward students as a way to buy down the cost of going online. 

For the second half of CARES spending, the institutional side, you’ll recall there were multiple levels of guidance that came out from the Education Department. Over time, the level of restriction increased so much that it was becoming difficult for us to figure out how we would use those funds, so we decided to give them to students as well. 

It’s really just money for them. They can pay for a laptop, tuition, debt from past semesters, food or whatever they need, but it’s all going out to students. 

Editor’s note: Jackson College gave funding to students to offset online fees that ran $119 per three-credit course. It also initially offered $500 emergency grants to eligible students but raised those to $2,000 to increase participation.  

The department also restricted who is eligible to receive the funds, including unauthorized and international students. Were you able to help them out at all? 

We made sure the Jackson College Foundation was a resource for some students unserved by the restrictions. We also have a student emergency fund made through employee contributions. 

How have you been cutting costs? 

We have a little less than a $50 million budget, so we’ve been stripping lots of expenses. Thankfully, both of our unions worked with us, and everybody agreed to take no wage increases for the year or performance bonuses. We reduced expenses through building closures. We’ve not filled any vacant positions or replaced employees who have retired or took another job. Those are incredibly unstrategic decisions but necessary to improve our cash flow. 

We also implemented a furlough (for two months) that was an option that was available to us because of the extra $600 per week from unemployment insurance that expired July 31. We had (about 38) employees who participated in that program and (they were able to remain at pre-furlough levels of income and benefits.) And we’re exploring the Michigan Work Share program, which is available until December.

We are working hard to not lay off anyone yet, and that continues to be a priority for us. I’m hopeful we don’t have to get to that space.

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