Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities have made big changes to offer students the quality education they deserve, while fostering their physical and financial well-being.
We sat down with Monica Morrison, interim chief student affairs officer at River Parishes Community College (RPCC), to find out what the college experience will look like in the midst of a global pandemic and economic recession.
U.S. Navy veteran Monica Morrison serves as the interim chief student affairs officer at River Parishes Community College in Louisiana. She is widely known for her dedication to being student-driven, action-oriented and motivational.
Monica, what quarantine protocols are you seeing colleges put in place for the fall semester?
RPCC has disseminated communications to our students through Canvas and email. We also have documents posted throughout the campus that identify and prioritize, obviously wearing a mask. Mask will be required on our RPCC campuses during class and inside the building. We've also instituted a single entry point check-in where visitors will receive a temperature check each time they visit and a dated wrist band. External signs have been posted to make sure that people are aware of the COVID-19 related symptoms as they're outlined by the CDC. And we have also closed some of our student lounges to make sure that we're deterring places where students usually congregate so that we can minimize those close contact situations. And we've limited access to water fountains as well to make sure that any surface contact is also avoided.
What happens if someone were to get sick on campus? What are the protocols that you have in place for that?
Well, fortunately for us at this time especially, RPCC does not have a residential component. I know that many institutions do, and so their policies and protocols will be very different. For us, once a student identifies as ill or sick, they'll just be asked or helped to their vehicles to leave the campus, and then they'll be asked to contact their medical provider for further assistance.
What can students and faculty staff do to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus on campus?
I don't know if it can be said any more times than we've heard it, but wear a mask. Our institution was thoughtful enough to buy masks for the faculty and staff here, but we've also purchased several thousand masks to be prepared for student's return. Obviously we're prioritizing hand washing and sanitizing your hands. We've posted the appropriate signage that shows students how to properly do that, and it reminds them of the importance of doing that. And also to minimize close contact, we've done social distancing in the classrooms. And so we think we're pretty ready, but you never know.
What other items do you think that students should bring to school?
Probably the biggest thing students can bring now is an open mind, and a readiness for transition and flexibility as we're all working to navigate this new normal. Obviously, as we've already said, the mask is required. And we have, we've ordered over 10,000 disposable masks for students and visitors. We have sanitation stations prominently located, and so while they can bring their own sanitizer, we've anticipated that as well. And we've increased our cleaning efforts of the high touch areas to just ensure that students feel safe when they enter the doors of our campuses.
How might the pandemic impact student expenses this fall?
Fortunately, RPCC has been able to offer students multiple ways to continue their academic and career goals in terms of course offerings, and we've publicized that information across our social media sites and through emails. So students have the option now to pursue classes either face to face, they can do 100% online, they can do a hybrid, which is a combination of online learning and then some contact classes in small groups where they're getting hands on training, because that may not lend to an online format. And we also have online that's real time, which mean that student will be able to interact with their teacher on specific days and times so that they can still get that personal interaction that they may need in terms of academic support. Students who opt to take the 100% online option may see a small increase in their tuition fees, however, the $40 technology fee that's usually associated with those classes has been waived until 2022.
Last spring, 16% of college bound students said they plan to take a gap year due to concerns over the coronavirus. If students take a year off or enroll elsewhere for a period, will they have to reapply for financial aid?
Fortunately, no. Financial aid is done by completing the FAFSA application online, and that's done yearly anyway. So even if a student should take a gap year or enroll at a different institution during this time, it won't affect their federally funded process. In fact, they'll take the same steps when they do, and then those funds and their eligibility will be determined at that time. The only distinction may be that students who may be wishing to use TOPS or TOPS Tech and use it beyond that initial one year start that's allowed, they will need to make sure that they follow the current LOFSA guidelines in terms of that kind of funding.
The Cares Act has created some benefit there in terms of suspended loan payments and interest rates for students who may already have student loan debt, and that I believe will end September of 2020. So we want to encourage them to stay current on changing benefits in terms of financial aid and those offerings as we move forward. But here at RPCC, because the need for virtual learning came about much more suddenly as more of a requirement than an option as it may have been previously, our foundation was able to do a tablet scholarship, and students were able to apply to receive tablets to support their online learning. And we will continue to do that in the fall. Information and links to apply for that will be provided as our classes start.
You have a campus in Gonzales, as well as in Reserve. Are the safety protocols being enforced on both campuses in the same manner?
That's correct. And actually we have four campuses. We have a campus in Gonzales, Reserve, Plaquemine and we've finally broken ground on a fourth in St. Charles. But yes, in our three campuses, our protocols for safety are the same and are consistent.
What do you think are the long-term consequences of the pandemic for colleges and universities?
That's a big question for anyone to answer, isn't it? How we do business and how we offer our services are continually evaluated by administration at institutions of all sizes. What we've done before may have worked, but we're having to learn to do it a little differently now to help ensure sustainability. That's a word I'm sure we'll continue to hear, not just for educational institutions, but for businesses large and small. I think that while I can't speak to the comprehensive nature of what all institutional impact may be, I will say that institutions may be working to manage the increased cost of staffing to man check point tables, and retrofitting those facilities with sneeze guards and partitions to make sure that the safety standards are in place. Additionally, there may be increased technology fees for the virtual learning and the telework opportunities that have now become a priority in our industry.
Obviously, there are many that I'm not mentioning, and that will vary from institution to institution. And in terms of our students, I think that we will see a significant concern with competing priorities, personal and financial, and how to juggle those. And even in the programs they choose in terms of what industries are hiring, and are they what I want or what I need for my long-term goal, and how that looks now and how to look post COVID, if we can even say there's such a thing? But I think that we can. While we expected to see unprecedented numbers in terms of our virtual learning, I don't know that we saw that, but I know that right now our numbers show that about 45% of our classes are going to be traditional face to face. But I think we will continue to see an increase in students selecting that option to stay at home and learn from home so that they can manage concerns about not stopping their educational efforts, but also prioritizing the health of their families and themselves.
What partnerships do you have with local high schools for dual enrollment?
Our dual enrollment option is a great option for many students, depending on what parish you're in. Funding for those is much more economical than our full time students. Currently, we have partnerships with St. John, St. James Parish, St. Charles Parish as well, and have begun negotiations with Ponchatoula High, and so we're excited about that. Ascension Parish is the home parish for our Gonzales campus. And so we're always working to make sure that our local partners have the benefit of those offerings and always ready to talk to anybody who's ready to establish a dual enrollment partnership with us.
Are there virtual opportunities for dual enrollment students?
Absolutely. All of our opportunities are available to our dual enrollment students. They're not limited into what they can take.
If you could give students one tip for returning to school during a pandemic, what would it be?
I would probably go back to be flexible. And I think it's difficult because we're all in unprecedented times, we're in a time when no one knows the answers, but there are so many questions. And I think just being patient with each other, and recognizing that none of us has ever experienced this before, and we're all working to stay safe, and figure it out and looking for how to adjust our daily lives around something that is completely out of our control.
Where can students to go to learn more information about the fall semester?
If you are a future student, or interested student, you can go to www.rpcc.edu/audiences/future-students. There are several pages listed that will walk you through our application and registration process, registering for classes, class scheduling, etc. We also have advisors on all of our campuses Monday through Friday. Even though we are still working to utilize telework and work from home, we do have full time staff available to assist those students who just feel more comfortable with a face-to-face contact. Masks required, of course. We are here to help our community and our students feel more comfortable with how they organize their upcoming semester.
Will counseling be available for students to help them adjust to the times we are in?
Absolutely! Our interim vice chancellor of academic affairs, Dr. Emily Campbell, is working on a really great series called “How To Do Online Learning” that will help students to feel more confident in navigating the virtual learning environment. We also offer additional services through our trio and WorkReady U Program.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. This was really informative.
I really appreciate Louisiana Federal Credit Union's efforts to help make our local community aware of what schools are doing to help foster the safety of everyone who visits our campus. It's a difficult time for all of us, but I think that we're all working toward the same common goal. I believe we'll make it as long as we keep prioritizing safety and work to take care of ourselves and each other.
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