During the unprecedented times created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s colleges and institutes have had to make adjustments to the way they offer their courses, the way they house their students, even the programs they offer for student supports.
From quickly making adjustments to their existing programs and courses, to coming up with new community and student support services, colleges are adapting to social-distancing changes that affect their students.
Some colleges have begun applied research related to COVID-19 and its global impact. For example, one researcher at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario is exploring how 3D mapping and drones can create virtual access to places that are closed due to COVID-19. Several colleges held applied research showcases virtually this year, still allowing students the important opportunity to share their work.
In fact, online learning has become the new reality for most colleges at this time. In many cases, switching to online learning occurred in a matter of days. College of the North Atlantic in Newfoundland and Labrador implemented a plan to move 181 of its 205 programs online in only four days.
British Columbia Institute of Technology has created an online fast-track education course for frontline nurses and healthcare providers to help them acquire the specialized knowledge they require to support critically ill patients, including those on ventilators. Since the program began, almost 4000 healthcare workers have registered.
Even courses that would generally require ìhands-onî training have successfully transitioned to online learning. At Camosun College in Victoria, BC, their Automotive Service Technician Program utilized very specialized and specific software that allowed students to virtually simulate running diagnostics, repairing wiring, replacing components and more.
Saskatchewan Polytechnic Culinary Arts students were provided with ingredients in a socially-distant manner, collaborated online with their instructors and prepared their assigned dishes at home, with assessment based on photos of the finished product.
Community supports are important to Canadaís colleges and institutes.
Canadore College in North Bay, Ontario is offering the general public free access to six general education courses, ranging from astronomy to world culture, film and the science of everyday life as a thank you to people who are self-isolating by giving them something productive to occupy their time.
Lethbridge College is offering a freely available open course on facilitating online learning for instructors, offering practical strategies to engage students in online classrooms.
A New Brunswick Community College Information Technology: Programmer Analyst student is helping local business by assembling a data base of sensory-friendly Corona virus shopping accommodations, products and services.
Another example is Centennial Collegeís continued ACCEL (Accelerator for Centennial College Community Entrepreneurs) program for small businesses, offering online workshops and coaching to help aspiring business owners develop or evaluate a successful business idea.
Not all support services are academic when it comes to a college education during a pandemic. Finance, housing and mental health are all important factors to college students.
Bursaries, emergency relief funding and zero percent tuition increases have been established at many colleges and institutes across Canada. In fact, Douglas College is aiming for an emergency fund of $1 million to provide aid to its students.
At Red River College the Indigenous Student Supports department quickly organized deliveries of computers and emergency food hampers, and are also preparing traditional medicines such as sage and cedar for students to be able to smudge at home.
As campuses were closed students in residence, especially international students, became concerned about where they would live. Many colleges have made exceptions for international students, or have assisted them to attain housing off-campus. Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, is moving nearly 200 students into local hotels as well as providing funding for food and other necessities.
New processes relating to international students had to be developed such as priority study-permit processing, updates to eligibility for post-grad work permits and a temporary 2-stage approval process for those students who cannot submit all required documentation due to pandemic-related closures. Colleges continue to work with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, as well as other federal departments and provincial governments to ensure the safe return of international students who left the country during the pandemic.
With increasing isolation and self-distancing, mental health concerns have come to the forefront. Many colleges are offering virtual tips, resources and workshops on dealing with stress and anxiety, as well as online one-to-one counselling.
At Humber College in Toronto, Ontario, PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions) connects students in high-risk courses to help maximize their understanding of a subject in a relaxed atmosphere. Okanagan College based in Kelowna, BC has an online resource for students with coping tips and links to various sites related to dealing with COVID, as well as study skills, anxiety, sleep, resilience and guided mindfulness apps and websites. And at BCIT the Mental Health at Home program addresses issues like adjusting to remote learning, finding credible sources for information on COVID-19 and also provides telephone and video counselling services.
Colleges are integral parts of the communities they serve therefore student and community supports continue to evolve as the COVID crisis changes.
In addition to supporting students with barriers to food security, many colleges are also contributing to local food banks and programs, like New Brunswick Community Collegeís volunteers who provided food for seniors in need. They also donated all of their perishable products that were on hand when the shut-down occurred to a local food bank. Vancouver Community College opened up its kitchens in the downtown area to convert to a meal prep and distribution centre for those with barriers to food during COVID-19. As well, a student and an instructor at Nova Scotia Community Collegeís Culinary Management course have taken it upon themselves to provide to-go meals for essential commercial truck drivers.
Just because campus access has been curtailed doesnít mean that learning has stopped. Northern Lakes Collegeís Continuing Education and Corporate Training is offering free or discounted training to help serve its community. Helpful online alternatives such as Introduction to Zoom and Podcasting for Business provide timely, on-point instruction.
Graduating students were affected by the pandemic and many were unable to walk across the stage to accept their diploma, after all of their hard work. Portage College in Alberta hosted a virtual convocation. Graduates were sent care packages which included a cap and tassel, scroll and information on connecting virtually for the celebration. In a much similar fashion to in-person graduation ceremonies, there were faculty and student speeches, an awards ceremony and online meeting rooms for chatting with fellow students and instructors.
These are unprecedented times and itís not just education that colleges are focusing on right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has isolated faculty members, support staff and students. Uncertainty exists for the future but seeing how effectively and efficiently Canadaís colleges and institutes have responded to the initial epidemic gives confidence in their ability to change and prosper.
By Jackie Fritz