TORRINGTON – The spring 2020 semester at Eastern Wyoming College will definitely be one students, staff and faculty aren’t likely to forget.
In early March, as the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was sweeping the world, administrators at the local college announced spring break would be delayed one week, with classes set to resume March 16.
But, as more cases were identified in the United States and recommendations from local, state and federal health departments evolved, it quickly became clear a return to normalcy for the final weeks of the term was probably not in the cards.
“Before classes could even get back underway, things changed again. COVID-19 came to Wyoming and it was obvious those initial plans were out the window. Now, the school is transitioning to alternative options for students to complete their classes.
“The process has kind of been changing,” EWC President Dr. Lesley Travers said. “About the time you think it’s going to be just for a week or two (before regular classes resumed) – we just don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
Faculty and administrators returned to campus in Torrington and Douglas as planned last week. But their mission was now changed – rather than gear up for students to return, how were they going to get lessons, testing and more done with students stuck in their homes across the region and across the world?
Starting with a meeting March 16, instructors jumped right to work, thinking about how they could move classes online or otherwise get the course work to students via some alternative method such as video conferencing, said Dr. Heidi Edmunds, vice president for academic services at EWC. One thing came out of those meetings, she said – it wasn’t going to easy.
“We recognized a lot of our students have different levels of access to technology,” Edmunds said. “Not everyone has access to a laptop or a home computer, they may not have reliable internet.
“We had to design courses for students, no matter what their capabilities are, as far as technology,” she said. “We asked our instructors to be really flexible, to offer materials so students can complete from home, no matter what their situation.”
The next step was to identify which courses could easily transition to online or alternative presentation. Instructors classified their curriculum as green, yellow or red – already offered online or through remote learning access, can be done with some work and absolutely no way – Edmunds said.
“It really isn’t appropriate to take a regular class and just put it online,” she said. “Students don’t have access to the library, for example. We had to modify the existing classes – even those who already had classes online.”
Then, the real wrangling started. The group started throwing around ideas and talked with Aaron Bahmer, instructional technologist for the college. By the end of those discussions, they decided it could be done.
“We were able to find a way to deliver almost all of our classes remotely,” Edmunds said. Working with Dean of Faculty and Student Services Debbie Oschner, “the faculty did not let any challenges get in their way. They went to work and came up with solutions.
“We all understood nobody was designing the best online class they could, but were coming to the best solutions available for the situation right now,” she said. “We asked the instructors not to get hung up on that. We fully realized they may be creating something they might not want anybody to see ever again.”
In addition to making sure students have sufficient access to technology to finish their classes remotely, there were more challenges to be overcome in achieving what could be considered a drastic alteration in the way EWC provides an education to its students this term, Travers said. Some of those were simple logistics – most students didn’t take their books with them when they left for the break, for example, she said.
But there was also the challenge of facing a dramatic change to what both students and instructors had expected the rest of the semester would be.
“Typically, when you get students on a campus, they didn’t come here to take online classes,” Travers said. “They really enjoy being in the class, they enjoy that social aspect of learning.
“It’s kind of a bit of a bomb – in the middle of the semester, middle of spring break having a good time, and suddenly they’re not coming back at all,” she said. “Some of the students didn’t get to say goodbye to their friends. It’s not just the learning aspect, it’s the social aspect. There’s a lot of pieces.”
Another consideration is how students will get the hands-on experience they need in more technical classes – nursing, certified nursing assistant, veterinary technology or welding – that require lab work for accreditation and licensing. Portions of those courses involve traditional classroom work and are included in the plans for online or alternative learning options, Edmunds said.
But a significant portion those classes involve the actual application of the theories and techniques students learn in class. Edmunds said plans are in the works to bring those students back later in the year in smaller groups to complete those requirements.
But those plans, too, remain in flux. They’re dependent on the further progression of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hopefully starting around mid-April “we can bring students back to campus as permitted to complete the laboratory or clinical portions of their programs, kind of in a compressed format,” Edmunds said. “But that date remains fluid.
“I do feel positive we’ve come up with solutions for all of our students,” she said. “We recognize they aren’t always convenient, not always the absolutely best way to accomplish a class. But faculty is still committed to achieving their course outcomes so students remain on course for their future plans.”
But what about students enrolled in current classes that are prerequisites for classes in their major next year or needed to transfer to University of Wyoming to complete a bachelor’s degree?
“How do we get students ready for classes they should start their second year if they haven’t finished the first year?” Travers said. “It’s important we get them ready. The last thing I want to do is set them up for failure next fall.
“I think we’re going to see some repercussions from all of this. There are going to be some students who are traumatized with all of this.”
If there’s a positive aspect to the current situation, it’s that students and faculty alike could come out of it with a better understanding of what their own capabilities are, Edmunds said.
“This is something affecting students everywhere,” she said. “If that means in biology two next semester, for example, if they have to do a little catch-up, everybody is kind of in the same place.
“They’ll come out understanding they’re capable of doing things they didn’t think they could,” Edmunds said. “And that’s an important takeaway – ‘I never thought I could complete a semester online, never thought I could complete a class completely online, but I did it.’”