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Berkshire Community College leaders talk adjustments amid pandemic

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PITTSFIELD — Online classes and virtual student town hall meetings, setting up hotlines and lending laptops, closing classrooms but keeping a food pantry open — these are just some of the ways Berkshire Community College is working to support students as in-person classes are suspended to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"We are working on a daily basis to cover whatever issues we need to focus on," BCC President Ellen Kennedy said during a remote BCC Board of Trustees meeting held March 24.

Students have been off campus since spring break began on March 16. It was extended for a week.

During that time, faculty began developing their remote learning plans, training to use remote learning tools and began migrating off campus as well. College faculty have been leveraging the ongoing work of BCC's Division of Teaching, Learning & Instructional Innovations to help transition into these new instructional environments. Faculty and staff planned to work remotely through May 4, even before the state government announced this week school closures through April.

Remote instruction begins Monday for all credited courses. According to college headcount data, 1,397 students are currently enrolled in credited courses. BCC has 120 full-time and adjunct faculty, all teaching remotely. For some, this means teaching through online modules, while others are working to create safe alternatives to teaching science labs and other programs which tend to be more hands-on.

Registration for fall courses will now begin on April 22 for currently enrolled students, allowing students extra time to connect with advisers remotely.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at BCC will be offering select spring classes online beginning April 13.

BCC Associate Director of Marketing and Communications Jonah Sykes said noncredit workshops and the International & Gourmet Dinners series have been canceled for the remainder of the spring semester. The Business & Outreach Division is exploring the possibility of expanding non-credit offerings to include online workshops later in the spring. Some workforce development programs have migrated to online delivery, while others have been put on hiatus for the time being.

"We are committed to continuing high-quality teaching in this remote environment and finding ways to support faculty in those efforts," Sykes said in an email.

He said that student services professionals, clerks, administrative assistants, food service staff, and others are also working remotely as they are able. "We have not had to lay off anyone and any reduction in hours have been voluntary and are supported through personal time and vacation," he said.

Cancellations and new connections

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Since the adaptation of social distancing practices, the college — in addition to postponing its own internal meetings, on-campus admissions programs, conferences and events — had to cancel or postpone contracted and collaboration events scheduled to take place on campus this spring, including a United Cerebral Palsy Conference, U.S. Census training, Wellness Day, 40 Under Forty awards ceremony, Live Out Loud Community Conference and Elms College and Westfield State University classes. More than 700 events have been canceled or postponed at the college between March and May.

Other instructions and updates are being announced regularly to current students and staff through the college's email system. Updates are also being provided through the college's website and social media channels.

A special hotline and email address, 413-236-1601 and covid19@berkshirecc.edu, have been set up to further help field specific questions, and to help students schedule appointments for remote services — from tutoring to financial services to mental health counseling — and to schedule an in-person visit to access technology or the Campus Cupboard Food Pantry. BCC President Kennedy has also been hosting a series of virtual Student Town Halls via the Zoom videoconferencing service for students who might have questions, concerns or would simply like to connect. Two have been held this week, one in the morning and one in the evening; the first garnered about 120 participants. A third meeting will take place at noon, Tuesday, March 31. Instructions to connect have been sent to students via email.

That said, some students may be struggling to find internet access now that they don't have access to the college's computer labs. Kennedy said so far the college has been able to keep up with the demands of student needing a loan of laptops and mobile Wi-Fi hot spots as they prepare for online coursework.

BCC Fine and Performing Arts Department Chair and Professor of Music Ellen Shanahan has been reaching out directly to her students to survey their needs.

"My students have been great about responding when I ask about internet connectivity, which is very helpful in planning," she said via instant message. "Our students always come first, and we are concerned about their needs beyond the classroom, as well."

Kennedy said faculty and staff will start next week during wellness checks through emails and phone calls to connect with students they have yet to hear from. During the recent Board of Trustees meeting, Vice President of Students Affairs and Enrollment Management Adam Klepetar said providing remote social connections and academic support are priorities "to ensure equity and access when everyone's working in a remote environment."

"This is a huge moment of disruption and change and naturally there's a lot of fear and anxiety," Kennedy said.

The college president says faculty and staff will continue to be proactive in reaching out to students to help them navigate these ongoing changes. "I've been so touched to watch the way people have been helping each other so far," she said.

While Kennedy said there are many immediate issues to address in higher education, the college's planning teams are also thinking well down the road in terms of "what are the needs of Berkshire County and what are the program needs coming out of [the pandemic]."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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