Community colleges plan to open campuses in fall; system working to improve distance learning

MONTGOMERY Alabama Community College System leaders on Wednesday said campuses are planning to reopen in the fall, subject to guidance from Gov. Kay Ivey regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement came during a system board meeting with members participating via video conference.

The system has also been discussing with the Ivey administration ideas for how students who are close to finishing their degrees and are able to enter the workforce soon can do so under new health and safety precautions.

Vice Chancellor for System Development Susan Price explained that staff has submitted suggestions to Ivey on how students who still need to complete lab or clinical work or workforce training programs can finish their courses in the coming months.

“Many of those students, this is the last course that they need to complete a program to enter the workforce,” Price said.

Community colleges are currently not allowed to provide in-person instruction until May 22. All colleges have had to move to online or virtual instruction for course work. While some course work can be completed online, some hands-on trades like welding, carpentry and electrical require more in-person training.

Increasing the state’s community college online education system is a major concern moving forward, Chancellor Jimmy Baker said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Baker offered an update on how much federal CARES Act relief funding colleges have been receiving, as well as how the system plans on utilizing some of those funds for bolstering distance-learning capabilities.

“I felt that we were better prepared than we would have been two years ago,” Baker said. “I know that, but still, we’re not where we need to be.”

Alabama was allocated $194.8 million of CARES funding for institutions of higher education. No less than 50 percent of each institution’s allocations must be used for emergency financial aid grants to students. The remaining funds can be used to offset lost revenue and technology costs associated with transitioning to distance learning.

Sarah Calhoun, the executive director of fiscal services for the community college system, said during Wednesday’s meeting that more than $27 million has gone to students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, more than $21 million is being directed to historically black colleges and universities in the state from the U.S. Department of Education as part of CARES relief package.

Chris Alexander, the director of virtual college programs at ACCS, said they were working on creating a single online proctoring and tutoring system that can be used by all colleges as they transition to more distance learning.

The Alabama Legislature last week authorized Gov. Kay Ivey's proposed $1.25 billion bond issue that will fund school construction and other capital improvement projects. Community colleges will get $120 million of that money.

Baker said he plans to meet with college presidents next week and ask them to create an education plan focusing on their needs five or 10 years down the road. He said he wants the bond money to be spent on education issues and not construction projects.

“I’m supportive of good buildings, but I want to address the issue of good education programs first,” Baker said. “... I see this as a major time to make a major play in improving the community colleges across the state.”

 

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