After a long closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Danville Area Community College and the DACC Higher Learning Center re-opened their doors in a limited fashion last week.
DACC and the HLC re-opened on a limited basis to provide essential business operations and student services.
DACC HLC Director Karla Coon said the pandemic forced the center to switch all of its ongoing classes over to completely online the week after spring break.
“It definitely presented some challenges because our students had not signed up to be in online classes,” she said. “So we had to make sure they were able to transition since they were used to having that face-to-face contact.”
Coon believes the high school students taking classes at the center were especially affected by this sudden shift.
“They went from being very busy, very social to nothing,” she said. “They had to give up sports, they weren’t able to go to prom, none of those things they had counted on. I think that had an impact.”
Adding to these issues, Coon said, the high school students had to start doing all of their high school coursework online as well.
Coon said the center’s staff and instructors stepped up to help make the transition for students as smooth as possible.
“Our instructors, Kendra [Morts] and I really made an effort to stay in close contact with the students,” she said. “It was kind of a rough transition.”
The same held true for some of the center’s adult students.
Coon said some had lost their jobs or had their spouses lose their jobs leading to an increased workload alongside a new system for handling coursework.
Internet and computer access also cropped up as an issue for students and some instructors weren’t aware of how to utilize the online teaching systems.
“We spent the first couple weeks making certain everybody was taken care of and everybody was comfortable with the new format,” she said.
One particular challenge posed by the shutdown was with the CNA courses.
Coon said the classes were getting ready to do their skill tests with CPR and first aid training, which couldn’t be done remotely at that time.
Coon said Laura Williams worked with Angie Harris, the lead CNA instructor, to find an online virtual skills training system that allowed students to complete some of the skill tests there.
“We really had to wait on IDPH [Illinois Department of Health] to tell us what we could do and what they would accept,” she said.
Coon said this was important because the skill tests are what prepare the students to work inside nursing homes to get clinical experience which, in turn, prepares them for the state exam.
She said IDPH agreed to accept 20 hours of virtual skill training to make the students eligible to be hired by nursing homes to complete the remaining 20 hours of training in the nursing homes.
“It was a lot of learning as we go, waiting on official permission for things,” Coon said.
After this long process, Coon said they worked with Traci Harris at Heritage Health to see if they could hire the students.
Coon said they received permission last week that Heritage could hire the students have them complete their clinical hours before sitting for the exam.
Coon was concerned throughout the process that the CNA students, 18 in all, wouldn’t be able to complete their training when she knew that the nursing homes were in need of extra help.
“It was very important that we got that worked out and we did,” she said.
Coon said the center’s regular summer term started June 8 and the classes are being offered completely online.
She said they are offering Speech 101, taught by Dan Reed, and English 101, taught by Mike Pemberton.
Coon said instructors are using DACC’s online blackboard system and the blackboard’s collaborate system as well Zoom to teach and communicate with their students.
Asked when she believes the center will be able to offer in-person instruction again, Coon said she doesn’t know.
“We don’t know,” she said.
Coon said they set up all of their classes for summer and fall as “web hybrid” courses that can be completed entirely online but allow for the chance for in-person instruction once that becomes possible.
“If at any point in time the state says it’s ok for students to meet in-person with their instructors, we could kind of flip the switch and begin to have them come to the higher learning center to meet,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have any indication that will happen for summer semester, we’re hoping that it will for fall.”
Whenever they are able to meet in-person, Coon said there will be requirements that will need to be met in order to host in-classroom learning.
“We can’t have more than 10 students in a class and it would have to be less than that if they’re not able to sit more than six feet apart,” she said.
Coon gave the example of a class with 20 students in it and how, under these guidelines, 10 of the students would be able to come in for in-person instruction one day of the week while the other 10 would come in for in-person instruction another day of the week.
Coon said there are still unanswered questions about what in-person instruction will look like, but feels they are in a good position to implement plans when they are finalized.
Currently, the higher learning center is open for essential student services such as anything students need to get registered for classes, set up testing and financial aid services that can’t be taken care of over the phone.
Coon said the center is open by appointment only currently.
Coon said they require a 24-hour advanced noticed on appointments because they aren’t staff all-day every-day. Their office hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Other requirements for entry into the higher learning center include a temperature check before entering, visitors must wear masks until they are seated in their classroom and are able to be six feet apart and masks are required in all of the common areas.
The primary service the higher learning center is currently providing is serving as a testing center providing state exams for CNAs.
Coon said these exams are vitally important for CNAs and students from all over the state are coming to the higher learning center to take their exams.
“It’s really important that we’re offering those tests,” she said.
In addition to the CNA tests, Coon said they are also offering placement tests students would need in order to be able to be registered for classes.
“That’s been one of the biggest needs in the Hoopeston area,” she said. “Just being able to get those tests completed so they can register for classes.”
Asked what kind of long-term impact the changes made during the pandemic will have on education, Coon said she anticipate more online elements being built into courses offered by DACC and the higher learning center.
Coon said DACC started the process of developing a plan for academic continuity, which provides a means for instruction to continue when there’s a natural disaster or pandemic, a few years ago.
“Anything that would interrupt the students’ abilities to attend classes in person,” she said.
Because of this plan, Coon said, Maggie Hoover, DACC’s director of online learning, started building blackboard shells for every class the school offers.
“The purpose of that was to have that shell out there in case something happened and you needed to flip the switch it could be done,” she said.
Coon said most, including herself, had grown complacent and never thought they would need this back-up system only to need it to continue instruction during this year’s pandemic.
After seeing its use during the pandemic, Coon expects that the blackboard shells will see much more use in the future in order to improve accessibility to classes for students.
“It’s not out there just as a ‘just in case,’” she said. “It’s out there and we’re going to be emphasizing the importance of using those tools all the time so that we are familiar with it and our students are familiar with it.”
After the initial bumpy start at the higher learning center, Coon said she’s seen how this system is offering more flexibility for some students by reducing their need to travel long distances, especially for those coming from south of Danville to attend classes in Hoopeston.
The system could also allow instructors to utilize the online system during bouts of bad weather by switching over to online instruction and telling students to stay home and off the roadways. Beyond that, Coon said it could enable students who are sick or unavailable for in-person instruction to remain a part of the learning process.
“I think online will definitely be a bigger part of it,” she said. “I think it could really increase accessibility across the board for students to be able to further their education.”