05232020 RVCC Coronavirus Empty Parking Lot

In this Tuesday, March 3, 2020, photo, the parking lot of River Valley Community College’s Claremont campus appears empty after administrative officials became aware of a potential tertiary exposure of one of its instructors to a person outside the college community who is being tested for COVID-19. Although the parking lot has continued to remain relatively vacant in the nearly three months since the potential case was discovered, college officials have worked with state officials to make a fall in-person reopening in the realm of possibility.

CLAREMONT — By employing a balance of technology, flexibility and collaborative planning, River Valley Community College will reopen campus for classes for the fall semester, according to college President Alfred Williams.

Williams told the Eagle Times on Friday that staff will return to the college campus after June 1 to begin acclimating to new classroom designs and procedures. The staff has worked together on these plans over the last several weeks, including configuring rooms to accommodate the programs needing additional space.

“It was all done collaboratively,” Williams said. “In the meetings that I sat in, the ideas were just flowing.”

Classrooms at River Valley Community College now have smaller occupancy limits and seating is spaced to align with recommended social distancing. Plastic screens are in place for one-on-one meetings with teachers and classrooms and labs are sufficiently equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks and shields, gloves and gowns, Williams said.

The spatial changes mean that courses with larger enrollment sizes will likely be spread over two adjoining rooms, rather than one.

The accommodation of larger spaces required a considerable level of creative program adapting while continuing to employ online technology as much as possible, Williams explained.

But classes will differ in their usage of online technology based on what teachers have found works best for students.

“We don’t want to be online only,” Williams said. “Our students still want to have that social interaction. But that social contact doesn’t necessarily have to be provided in a traditional way.”

Some online courses, such as mathematics, will have a “synchronous” model, Williams said. Synchronous courses are like traditional courses, with weekly classes that students must attend. Online synchronized classes will be delivered over Zoom, which students may access from home or over a computer on campus. The staff found this synchronized model was the most effective for liberal arts courses this spring.

Asynchronous courses — which are also included in the River Valley Community College course catalogue — are predominantly self-paced and don’t necessarily have class meetings. Students are expected to complete assignments on a weekly basis and can access the instructor as needed.

Williams said there are also “hybrids,” which are mostly self-paced but have “four or five” class meetings during the semester.

Courses in the catalogue will be labelled with one of these descriptions, so students know what they are signing up for in regards to scheduling requirements, according to Williams.

River Valley Community College’s summer program, which starts on Tuesday, May 26, will be mostly online courses, though courses with labs will have students come on campus starting in late summer.

Williams said that programs in the fall aim to schedule their labs and in-class time during the initial months of August and September. That way, should a second wave of COVID-19 require schools to close again, the courses will be able to transition more easily to online instruction.

Not alone

River Valley Community College is not the only institution of higher education in the state eyeing a fall in-person reopening. The 18 campuses associated with the University System of New Hampshire (USNH) and the Community College System of New Hampshire (CCSNH) announced Friday, May 8, that they “intend to welcome students back to campuses for the fall term” amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. Though, a spokesperson for CCSNH also acknowledged in an interview with The Granite State News Collaborative that community colleges are currently working with state officials to bring some students — dependent on the program — back on campus as early as June for in-person instruction.

“[USNH and CCSNH] are working closely with state leaders and health professionals to develop guidelines and criteria that institutions will follow to support a safe return,” a joint press release issued by the two systems of public colleges and universities on May 8 reads. “As the institutions plan for a return to campus, internal task forces are also preparing for scenarios along a spectrum of on-campus, socially distanced and online learning components in the event that some forms of remote learning may need to continue.”

All 18 institutions are taking steps and investments throughout the spring and summer “to improve technology and support their teaching and learning environments as they further develop high quality, blended learning capabilities,” the press release says.

“The vibrance, creativity, talent, and impact of our students, faculty, and employees who inspire our mission to the State of New Hampshire are missed, and we are working diligently to restore safe frameworks that will enable the return of our communities and their impact on our local economies,” said Todd Leach, chancellor of USNH, which enrolls 32,000 students combined at Granite State College, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and the University of New Hampshire.

“We are pleased to speak as one voice for public higher education in New Hampshire to say that we will be here to serve students this coming academic year,” said Susan Huard, chancellor of CCSNH and former president of Manchester Community College. “This spring has shown us how adeptly our faculty, staff and students can adjust to changing circumstances. Higher education supports strong communities and our state’s economy in so many ways through fulfillment of our public mission, and we will continue providing the opportunities that our residents rely on to sustain a high quality of life in the Granite State.”

The CCSNH consists of seven colleges including Great Bay Community College, Lakes Region Community College, Manchester Community College, Nashua Community College, NHTI — Concord’s Community College, River Valley Community College and White Mountains Community College.

Positive outlook

Despite the challenges, Williams said that the transition to online instruction led to some positive experiences. Numerous teachers told him that having to adapt their instruction “really got them to think about how their students learn and improved them as professors.”

Williams also praised how the staff and faculty were able to collaborate to find creative solutions.

“It’s often a crisis that brings out the best in people,” he said.

Williams said he is enthused about the coming semester and direction of the college. Enrollment is up and despite the pandemic, students in the health alliance program were able to complete their clinicals during the spring and students stayed on track to graduate.

“It showed that we can still deliver… in our duty to help students graduate and join the workforce,” he said.

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