Universities and colleges around the country are now dealing with how education and instruction will be done in the fall when students return to classes, given the current precautions and restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to have its grip in place.
Such is the case at Northwest Mississippi Community College, with its main campus in Senatobia and its satellite locations in Oxford and the DeSoto Center in Southaven.
Northwest President Dr. Michael Heindl has announced a number of changes that will take place at the school to accommodate learning and the COVID-19 restrictions.
Heindl said day and evening classes will start for the fall semester on the date originally set by the calendar, but using a different model for instruction.
“We have adopted a hybrid-type of modality for the fall when it comes to instruction,” Heindl said. “We will start classes on time on Aug. 17 and we will have a hybrid instruction model, a mostly face-to-face model. Since we are going hybrid with most of the classes, we’re going to be able to finish the semester early, the week before Thanksgiving week.”
With the hybrid format, courses will hold two 50-minute in-person class meetings each week, Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday, and 80 minutes of online instruction. This new model will be substituted for classes formerly scheduled for the current Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Tuesday/Thursday sequences.
More modest alterations are being done to the schedules of career technical classes but on a program-by-program basis. The eLearning calendar will continue to observe the statewide virtual college calendar dates.
“We can end the semester early during the heightened cold, flu, and now coronavirus months as we understand it from the latest information that we have,” Heindl said. “We’re going to be able to then start the spring semester on Jan. 25, around two weeks later than normal, and still finish on time on May 8 with graduation taking place after that.”
The spring semester at Northwest will have the same hybrid instruction model as the fall semester will have.
What happens between the end of the fall semester and the start of the spring semester will be what Heindl termed a “mini-winter term” of online-only classes.
Northwest is offering the winter session for the first time. Heindl believes it will help students make faster progress toward their degree goals, as well as potentially increase enrollment.
The mini-winter term will also allow the school to do a cleaning of the campus between the fall and spring semesters, continuing a process that’s already been done on campus.
“We have ramped up our sanitizing and cleaning protocols with our custodial staff,” Heindl explained. “We have already purchased personal protective equipment for our instructors, employees, and our students. We are doing what you probably see at most places as we have purchased the plexiglass shields and things like that for the business office, admissions, and Student Services offices.”
While not specifically determined as of yet, Northwest classrooms will also consider a means of social distancing its students and instructors.
“We are talking about how a classroom looks in the fall,” said Heindl. “Depending on guidance, if a classroom serves 30 students, do we now serve half that number? We are having conversations about that. That might be the case for us in the fall, where we have one desk taped off but then the next one could be used. Social distancing is very important so we are planning for that, as well.”
Heindl said Northwest went to the new hybrid model in response to a survey of students and staff who voiced a desire for in-classroom learning over distance learning online.
“What they said was that they really wanted to come back and have a face-to-face on-campus type of environment,” he explained. “That’s what we’ve really tried to do to be ready for this fall, to be able to provide a majority on-campus environment.”
The last spring semester of classes had to be finished online because of the pandemic, with the Northwest president proud of what was accomplished and how instructors and students adapted to the need to change.
“Our instructors were valiant, very innovative, and creative in being able to convert their classes over to an all-online format,” he said. “That was able to allow many of our students to be able to complete their associate degree with us.”
Coursework moved to mostly internet and online learning when the pandemic struck in March and conversion was quickly done to accommodate learners coming back from an extended spring break.
Northwest converted over 832 academic classes and 344 career technical classes, Heindl said. They were either converted over to a completely online format or a modified format, which allows career-technical students to complete the semester in a hybrid way. Most of the classes were able to be taken online with small components being able to come back to campus and finish.
The Northwest president stressed these are the current plans for the fall, but they may change depending on developments in the response to the coronavirus outbreak. Heindl said the hybrid plans can quickly be adjusted to online learning if needed.