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GRCC administrators and students give insight into distance learning after concerns of COVID-19 closed the campus

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A look at the bare courtyard of GRCC's Main Campus as students and professors will finish out the remainder of the Winter 2020 semester from home (Hayley Babbitt/The Collegiate).

Following direction from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and local health officials over COVID-19, administrators at Grand Rapids Community College canceled classes March 12-14 to allow staff and faculty to transition their classes online. Courses resumed for virtual learning Monday, March 16. 

GRCC President Bill Pink is hopeful that the campus will reopen soon. The college is going to determine if the April 6 deadline will remain in effect or if that needs to be extended further within the next week or so. 

“We are shooting for April 6,” Pink said, “but, also, wisdom says you prepare for what it will look like if we have to push past April 6.” Adding that the college is “keeping our eye on this all day, every day.”

There has been a mixed reaction from students as they and their professors were quickly thrust into online learning.

Nineteen-year-old freshman at GRCC, Priscilla Salazar-Bont, studying psychology and business, said that the level of communication from her professors has varied when it comes to correspondence through regular email updates and Blackboard posting.

“I would consider one of my professors doing that,” Salazar-Bont said. “Most of them kind of just tell you, ‘Hey, this is on there (Blackboard). This is our week and then you guys can pretty much figure it out yourselves.” 

Brian Knetl, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at GRCC, said that while it has been a challenge, he has heard “story after story” of professors stepping up.

“You can see faculty in action in a very short amount of time,” Knetl said.

Psychology major, President of GRCC’s chapter of Psi Beta and member of the Honors Program and Phi Theta Kappa, Jacob Foster, 24, shares his recent experience.

“Some professors are giving me a lot of information,” Foster said. “Some professors have sent like one email telling me we’re going online and nothing else which can be a little frustrating.” 

While the provost said he hasn’t gotten as much feedback from students as he has professors, that which he has received has been positive.

“A lot of the common things I’m getting from them are about how their professors are stepping up and keeping them at ease,” Knetl said. “Trying to reassure them that everything is going to be okay, asking for patience and the students saying to me that the faculty members are showing them patience as they go through this.” 

According to Knetl, students are continuing to be motivated and engaged learners. 

“A lot of students are just being really proactive about keeping up and reaching out to make sure they have the technology that they need to be successful and sending a lot of thank you letters to say, ‘I needed this and I was able to get it,’ ‘I needed this piece of software and I was able to get it.’” 

Student at GRCC, Jordan White, 24, said that she has faced challenges in regards to the new structure of learning and maintaining motivation.

“On my end it’s a little bit more difficult because I rely on the structure and the timeline of being on campus and going to school,” White said. “Everything just comes down to self motivation.” 

Others shared that they enjoy the additional free time. 

“Personally, I kind of like it a lot,” Salazar-Bont said. “It’s made it super easy for me to have more time on my hands. Although, it is hard to keep up every once in a while with all of the classes.” 

Knetl said that the last few days the college has been in transition and preparation mode and is focusing on making sure students have “everything they need.” 

“This is a very different semester than how any of us thought it was going to go,” Knetl said. “When students sign up for a face-to-face class and then it’s suddenly all online, there’s anxiety about being successful in that format.”  Later adding that although the structure is different “we’re doing a lot of the same work.”

White shares that her professors have been very supportive throughout this experience.

“As far as receiving instructions from my professors, everything has been going quite well,” White said of her experience with distance learning thus far. “They’ve been really amazing about reaching out to us.” 

The president said he is cognizant that there are a host of needs that students currently have and the college is working to address those. There are laptops available to be loaned to students for an extended period of time. They are also working toward making WIFI available for students now that computer labs are closed for the time being.

“On our own campus, while we may be closed as far as buildings are concerned, here in our parking lot (The Administration Building), a nice sized parking lot, we boosted our WIFI signal that will reach across this parking lot,” Pink said, offering that students could park there and access an internet connection to work on school assignments from their car. 

The college has compiled a list of the additional following options for WIFI:

*These options are dependent on where you live as these providers have limited reach to some areas 

For people who have “uneasiness” about learning in this new format, the president hopes that those students will reach out to faculty members. Pink stated that he wants everyone to “have a pathway to be successful,” particularly so with the “unchartered waters” we are in. 

“Our faculty are aware that some students may not have any experience with online learning,” Pink said. “This, in my mind, is a bit different in that our faculty are stepping up their game in terms of trying to do all they can to help not only a student feel secure about that experience but to also know that they have faculty that understand what all of our situations are.” 

The president said that the college is providing different options for students who are struggling to have their basic needs met, and urges those individuals to reach out to Student Life for assistance. 

Lina Blair, Director of Student Life and Conduct at GRCC, is working to assist students through this difficult time and said she hopes that people will continue to reach out and get help where needed. 

“We like helping students, taking care of each other and being there to be supportive in any way that we can,” Blair said.

On Monday, the Student Life office reached out to all of the students who have used the food pantry, as well as those who have applied for emergency funding in the past few months, veteran students, and TRIO students. Additionally, they have sent out emails to all GRCC students so everyone would be aware of their services. 

The food pantry, which is usually open 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, will now be restricted, for the time being, to once a week distribution with curbside pickup. The food provided will be on a first-come, first-serve basis. Times and location information can be found here

The GRCC webpage has a tab titled ‘Get Help’ that provides information regarding the resources available. There is a confidential questionnaire for students to fill out. Upon completion, a staff member will then be in contact with that individual and get them connected with the services they need.

Blair notes that people in multiple departments have rallied together.

“It’s been a real team effort and that’s what’s been so amazing in this,” Blair said about her colleagues and the collaboration she has had with those in other departments. “Everybody is really working hard to make sure that we stay connected to students and continue to support students in whatever way we can given all of the circumstances.” 

Blair desires to be a continued resource for students, especially in this particularly challenging time. 

“We created the form so that it makes it easier than it was before for students to find us and reach out for help,” Blair said. “We want to stay helpful.”

According to Blair, students have been “very grateful” for the assistance they’ve received and appreciate the continued support of having someone check in with them to see how they’re handling this situation. 

Pink reiterates that he has been “very amazed” with the faculty response and their willingness to step up during this period and reminds people that it’s a team effort.

“I think the key here is that we all have to do all we can to try to do this together,” Pink said. 

The president encourages feedback from students and wants communication to remain in place throughout these unusual circumstances.

“I want to hear those students that say, ‘Here are the gaps, here are the problems,’” Pink said, ‘but we also want to hear those students say, ‘Hey, this is working for me.’ We know that both things are happening.”

Editor’s Note: The Collegiate has published a story with more information on how students are handling distance learning. That article can be found here.