Rebuilding America: Education moves forward in aftermath of pandemic

A student at Southeast Kansas Career and Technical Education Center.

Like other higher education institutions, Pittsburg State University, its faculty, staff and students, felt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that resulted from it. This was especially true for the 2020 spring graduating class, whose May commencement was canceled. PSU now has plans for a ceremony to recognize these graduates in December.

The university also took a financial hit from the pandemic. Housing and dining refunds following the closure of the campus amounted to more than $1.5 million in lost revenue. On a more positive note, however, Pitt State is expected to receive more than $5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. 

Projected state revenue losses of well over $1 billion over the next two years as a result of the virus, though, will likely hit PSU in any case in the form of budget cuts. The university will likely see a “modest” increase in tuition, according to its website. “We are working hard to balance our budget, reduce spending, and secure an appropriate level of state funding so we can limit our increases in tuition,” it notes.

Despite the challenges it faces, Pittsburg State plans to reopen its campus in the fall.

“There are still many unknowns,” PSU President Steve Scott said in a press release earlier this month. “Campus won’t be the same, but not all of the differences are defined. What we can say with certainty now is that health and safety remain our top priority.”

The university is doing all it can, according to information available on its website, to maintain its student recruitment momentum from before the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our recruiters are working virtually via online chat, virtual campus tours, and lots of emails, texts, and phone calls,” the university noted in response to a series of “Town Hall” questions earlier this month. “We’re exploring the option of hosting very small groups on campus as soon as it’s feasible. For students who are hesitant about college right now, we are focusing on helping them see that a credential beyond high school puts them in a far better position in any job market – particularly one with high unemployment in many sectors. Now is not the time to stray from goals.”

Nonetheless, for some, those goals may be changing. Kris Mengarelli, executive director of the Southeast Kansas Career and Technical Education Center of Crawford County (CTEC) in Pittsburg, noted in a recent interview that CTEC has “a great partnership with Pitt State where our students can complete their associate’s degree in one of our construction trades courses and then transfer to Pitt State in a 2-plus-2 program.”

Mengarelli said he doesn’t think enrollment at CTEC — which offers welding, carpentry, masonry, and HVAC courses through Fort Scott Community College, as well as hosting Pittsburg High School’s auto tech program — will necessarily decrease as a result of the coronavirus. He recently received a list of Girard High School students interested in CTEC’s programs he said, and it included more students from the school than ever before. A key reason that CTEC’s fall enrollment may even increase as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, is that laid off workers may want to get retrained in professions that would be deemed “essential,” which would be the case for all of the trades that CTEC offers courses in.

That is not to say, however, that CTEC hasn’t had its share of challenges as a result of the coronavirus.

“The challenge we face is it’s hard to teach hands-on courses when you can’t be in the same building together,” Mengarelli said.

“The students we get are hands-on learners,” he said. “They would prefer to learn by doing.”

Nonetheless, CTEC has attempted to make the shift to online coursework — and has had some success. Fortunately, Mengarelli said, students were able to complete a significant amount of lab time early in the semester before the coronavirus shutdown, giving instructors a good sense of what students knew and as well as time to cover a lot of the necessarily hands-on parts of the coursework. Since moving to online classes, students have been able to continue to learn their trades through written materials, videos, and similar remote learning tools.

“I think good’s going to come out of it and we will probably look at keeping some portion of online learning,” Mengarelli said, “which will help our instructors going forward, to where the classroom time, the students can do that anytime, anywhere, and then our instructors can cover what they need to in the classroom a little more quickly, and again be able to spend more time in the lab working with students hands-on.”

Summer is typically a good time for its students to be working or doing internships, Mengarelli said, and CTEC does not generally see enough interest in summer classes to offer them. The technical school plans to resume face-to-face classes in August, he said — though additional safeguards such as social distancing would be put in place, and plans could also change.

“Right now a lot of things are just kind of in a holding pattern,” Mengarelli said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about the fall as far as, you know, things are very fluid from day to day, from week to week.”

Changes made in response to the coronavirus have provided CTEC with new ideas about how to “give students several different modes of learning,” Mengarelli said. “So they’re going to see a demonstration in the lab, they’re going to practice a weld in the lab or practice their brick-laying skills, watch a demonstration and then they can watch a video online and learn, and then they can look in the textbook and learn some more details, so it really, in my opinion, as we look at that, I think it’s going to strengthen the ability for students to get all the information in any mode that they pick it up best.”

At the end of the day, though, a face-to-face, hands-on component is essential to the education CTEC offers.

“I mean, you know, reality says you can’t learn to drive a nail with a virtual hammer,” Mengarelli said. “You’ve got to have something in your hand to do that.”

Once it became clear that curving the spread of coronavirus would be a top priority for our country, Kansas became one of the first states to act to combat the spread of the virus.

Governor Laura Kelly ordered the cancellation of classrooms on March 17, which made Kansas the first state to officially close school buildings in the country.

Schools across the state closed for the semester, opting instead to establish online courses for the over 500,000 public school students.

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson and Governor Laura Kelly have been optimistic in the ability for school buildings to open up in August.

With schools looking at the potential possibility of reopening, it will be up to Governor Kelly and the local school systems to determine what that means for the state’s students.

Pittsburg High School Superintendent of Schools Richard Proffitt will be one of the many superintendents across the state who will be working in conjunction with Gov. Kelly in developing a plan.

In a “letter from the superintendent”, Proffitt lauded the schools “Continuous Learning Plan” that the school has implemented since the closing, but spoke on the importance of developing the plan for the next phase.

USD 250 will establish two committees, made from “USD 250 staff members, teachers, administrators, local health advisors and parents.”

According to Proffitt, the committees will develop the plan that will determine what reopening of Pittsburg schools will look like, as well as possible developments that might affect the plan down the line. 

Also, the plan will “establish learning expectations for schoolwork, student engagement, assessment of student achievement, and measurement of student success based on lessons that we have learned from our current situation.”

USD 250 are among the many schools in the state that will face difficult decisions in the near future on what will be the best way to reopen our schools.

Although it will be up to local school departments to develop their own plans, they will do so while following guidelines from the Kansas Department of Education, KDHE, and local health organizations.

The Norsemen and women at Northeast Oklahoma A&M College (NEO) are just some of the students who have had to transfer from in-person classes to online classes mid-semester.

The transition was a fairly smooth one according to Jordan Adams, the Coordinator of Public Information and Marketing.

“Our students were incredibly cooperative and understanding as we transitioned the spring semester to an online format. While many of our students desire in-person interaction with the instructors and classmates, the entire campus community was able to work together and ensure that the semester was completed successfully. Knowing now that our courses starting in June will be entirely online or hybrid, students and instructors both have a better understanding of how to interact in an online environment,” said Adams.

Adams says that the biggest challenge students faced was access to reliable, high-speed internet.

“Our campus conducted a massive infrastructure upgrade a few years ago that allows faculty and staff on campus to create and deliver content, but for students and faculty off campus, their internet can be much less reliable,” said Adams. “There has been tremendous emphasis nationwide on Zoom learning, which NEO has utilized, but our faculty members often had to get creative with making content that was constructive to the student, while also trying to limit their reliance on high-speed internet access. However, students, faculty, and staff all showed remarkable cooperation to ensure that the delivery of course material was uninterrupted and classes were completed successfully. As I mentioned earlier, the summer semester will give faculty time to develop course content that can be delivered both online and in-person and ensure that whatever the delivery method, students will receive an excellent education.”

Even with the closure of campus and the cancellation of many sporting and artistic events, students involved with extracurriculars have been able to continue honing their skills.

“Physical fitness is certainly one of the main concerns when discussing team sports, but our coaches have noted that through the pandemic, their teams have actually bonded more than they would in a regular season. By focusing on the mental aspects and strategy of their sports as well as keeping in contact and checking on each other’s mental and emotional health, the teams developed an increased bond. Our coaches are also a central academic resource for athletes. Grade checks and online class progress was monitored to ensure each student was remaining successful in the transition to online courses,” said Adams.

According to Adams, coaches created specific workout plans for the athletes, including batting drills for baseball and softball players, to bodyweight and cardio exercises for football players and wrestlers.  

“For our agriculture teams like Rodeo, many riders already have horses and since events are individualized, they can continue to practice at home,” said Adams.

Artistic students have not been forgotten in the transition to virtual classrooms.

“In terms of arts, while the Norwegian Legion is a group exercise, students can continue to develop their skills through individualized and sectional practice regimens. Whether through group Zoom meetings and individualized sessions, music, art, and theatre instructors can ensure their students are continuing to develop their skills,” said Adams.

On Tuesday, May 19, NEO announced via press release that the school would resume in-person classes for the fall 2020 semester.

“We will comply with federal and state regulations as well as the recommendations from health officials,” said Dr. Kyle Stafford, NEO president. “It is important to the success of our student population that we get back to face-to-face learning, but we take our commitment to the safety of our campus community very seriously.”

According to the press release the school has developed a phased plan to reintegrate into a new normal. The first phase of the process is to bring all employees back to campus by Monday, June 1. NEO will also allow visitors in the Library and Administration Building and the Recruitment Office in Copen Hall. All other buildings on campus will require an appointment.

“By opening the Library/Administration Building and Recruitment Office, we are allowing students and visitors to conduct business with nearly all of our public-facing offices,” added Dr. Stafford. “Students can visit the Admissions/Registrar, Financial Aid, the Business Office, Library, and our Center for Academic Success and Advising all in this building. We will continue to monitor campus conditions and make changes as necessary. In all  phases of reopening campus, we are remaining  sensitive to the needs of our campus community.”  

A previous announcement by the school stated that all classes beginning in June will be online or in a hybrid format. No decision has been made for July classes. Concerning the fall 2020 semester, more decisions will be made as COVID-19 develops.

“While we plan on holding on-campus classes in the fall, everyone understands that the situation could change and we now have the time to prepare courses and communication strategies to meet our student population needs. By conducting the quick transition in spring, we were able to see where student concerns were and can collaborate to develop more effective delivery,” said Adams.

Northeast Technology, Kansas campus, has been a veritable ghost campus, since mid-March.

The coronavirus began to raise its head in Oklahoma about the same time Spring Break was about to begin which made everything was kinda fuzzy.

As Spring Break vacated the campus, it has left many with partially completed certifications and a challenge to figure a way to complete proctored tests before the end of the semester.

According to Director of Communications, Tara Thompson, the campus will begin to come back to life on June 1, allowing completions of many certifications that have been in limbo since March.

Many students and adult careers have been held in abeyance since the campus shut down, which affected thousands of lives.

Northeast Tech has had a great impact in eight counties of Oklahoma.

According to its website “Today, Northeast Tech serves students across eight counties with its four campuses in Afton, Claremore, Kansas and Pryor. 

Each year, Northeast Tech trains over 1,200-plus students in its full-time, daytime programs. 

Through Northeast Tech's Business & Industry Services, along with short term night and weekend classes, almost 20,000 additional students train through Northeast Tech.”

As in other locations across Oklahoma as it begins to reopen, Northeast Tech’s reopening will come with a few changes.

Students will be required to have their temperature taken as they arrive, will need to social distance and follow CDC guidelines.

Another challenge for instructors is how to “deliver hands-on training in a non-hands-on way.”

Creativity became the norm.

For instance, how to teach welding and see if the student learned the procedure: “an instructor had the students apply spray Cheese Whiz to a cracker to practice perfecting the welding bead.”

As Oklahoma businesses re-open, NE Tech will begin to re-offer the customized training as the college partners with small and medium size businesses. 

According to their website “Northeast Tech is the #1 place for career training in Northeast Oklahoma. With campuses in Afton, Claremore, Kansas, and Pryor, we have locations all around our district.

Full-time programs ended with the public schools on May 8th and hopefully will resume in August or September of this year, depending on what the high schools are directed to do.

In the full-time program, high school juniors and seniors (some sophomores in certain classes), are able to take classes at NE Tech concurrently with their high school track, at no cost to them.

It makes it possible for students to graduate from high school and NE Tech with a two-year college certificate or transfer to a four-year college.

How and which credits will transfer depends on the destination college, but it is an affordable way to complete two years of college or vocational education, at no cost nor incurring student debt.

The costs of classes vary and is determined by the class taken.

The full-time classes for high school juniors and seniors are at no cost to the student (other than the costs for supplies), as are some adult classes such as “Seniors in Technologies.”

Certification classes, such as welding or medical, can cost between $600 - $900 per semester and up to $1000/semester for specialty adult classes. 

Many vocational students come out of NE Tech certified, able to secure a job at a mid-point salary, instead of minimum wage, because they’re certified or trained on the latest equipment or software in the industry.

Thompson says “We take pride in using and training on the very latest equipment…sometimes graduating students find it is newer than the business is currently using.”

The use of business advisory councils keep NE Tech abreast of the latest and best industry practices, keeping their students prepared.

The hope is that the fall will bring with it “normal.”

As business reopen and as adults come out of shelter-in-place, there is a pent up desire to get out and get going.

Classes for industry such as OSHA 10, bucket truck training, art and general adult interest classes such as Yoga, making gigs, plus medical classes in CAN, phlebotomy and EMT are ready to relaunch.

Faculty and administration are anxious to get campuses reopened and classes re-populated with students as soon as they can. 

NE Tech has around 30,000 students across their campuses, with 30,000 reasons to get the doors reopened and classes back in session.

Rebuilding America:What will schools look like when they reopen?

A student at Southeast Kansas Career and Technical Education Center.