Community Colleges plan on opening campuses in fall; System working to improve distance learning

Community Colleges plan on opening campuses in fall; System working to improve distance learning

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama Community College System leadership on Wednesday said campuses are planning to reopen in the fall, subject to guidance from Gov. Kay Ivey regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement came during an ACCS Board meeting with members participating via video conference.

The system has also been discussing with the Ivey administration ideas for how students who are close to finishing their degrees and are able to enter the workforce soon can do so under new health and safety precautions.

Vice Chancellor for System Development Susan Price explained that staff has submitted suggestions to Ivey on how students who still need to complete lab or clinical work or work force training programs can finish their courses in the coming months.

“Many of those students, this is the last course that they need to complete a program to enter the workforce,” Price said.

Community colleges are currently not allowed to provide in-person instruction until May 22. All colleges have had to move to online or virtual instruction for course work. While some course work can be completed online, some hands-on trades like welding, carpentry and electrical require more in-person training.

Increasing the state’s community college online education system is a major concern moving forward, Chancellor Jimmy Baker said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Baker offered an update on how much federal  CARES Act relief funding colleges have been receiving and how the system plans on utilizing some of those funds for bolstering distance-learning capabilities.

“I felt that we were better prepared than we would have been two years ago,” Baker said. “I know that, but still, we’re not where we need to be.”

Alabama was allocated $194.8 million of CARES funding for institutions of higher education. No less than 50% of each institution’s allocations must be used for emergency financial aid grants to students. The remaining funds can be used to offset lost revenue and technology costs associated with transitioning to distance learning.

Sarah Calhoun, the executive director of fiscal services for ACCS, said during Wednesday’s meeting that more than $27 million has gone to students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, more than $21 million is being directed to historically black colleges and universities in the state from the U.S. Department of Education as part of CARES relief package.

Chris Alexander, the director of virtual college programs at ACCS, said they were working on creating a single online proctoring and tutoring system that can be used by all colleges as they transition to more distance learning.

Alexander also explained a new program called Massive Open Online Content, or MOOCs, which would allow anyone from the public to take a specific course for free prior to their enrollment.

“To be able to put something in front of them to gauge what that program consists of other than just a conversation with them and an advisor or an instructor, I think its going to make a huge impact,” Alexander said during the meeting.

A spokesperson from ACCS told Alabama Daily News they hope the MOOCs program will begin in 2021.

The Alabama Legislature last week authorized Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposed $1.25 billion bond issue hat will fund school construction and other capital improvement projects. Community colleges will get $120 million of that money.

Baker said he plans on meeting with college presidents next week and asking them to create an education plan focusing on what their needs will be for five or ten years down the road. He said he wants the bond funds to be spent on educational issues and not constructional projects.

“I’m supportive of good buildings, but I want to address the issue of good education programs first,” Baker said. “…I see this as a major time to make a major play in improving the community colleges across the state.”