East Central College faculty members are concerned about a possible change in learning at its main campus in Union, as well as sites in Washington and Rolla.
ECC started the semester with a blend of online and in-person classes to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. But instructors want to make sure they get a warning should that change, although no change is planned.
Circumstances surrounding COVID-19 in the region have changed since the most recent ECC Board of Trustees meeting in September.
Faculty Association President Dr. Reg Brigham said at that time, staff were in their first week of the new semester. “There was a lot of uncertainty,” he told the board, which met via videoconference Oct. 5. “Emotions were running high. No one was really sure what was going to happen.”
Most instructors started settling into a routine a few weeks in, Brigham said. “But I’m starting to get some antsyness from folks based on what’s going on out in the community at large. When schools quarantine a classroom, and that affects somebody, that sort of thing.”
Brigham said it is normal to see a student in one of his classes quarantined, but he pointed to Rolla High School moving from in-class learning to a hybrid approach as a reason for concern.
“Things like that, I think, have the faculty just a little bit nervous,” he said.
Instructors are listening and watching for any signs of what might happen, Brigham said.
“People are regularly asking, ‘Are we going to make it one more week? Are we going to make it one more day?’ ” he said. “Depending on the week and how things are going.”
While some faculty members are nervous about COVID-19 in general, most are more concerned about having to make a sudden shift like they did when the campus closed in the spring, Brigham said.
“Spring was pretty traumatic for everyone,” he said. “Really the feeling that I get is that if we need to make a decision, we’d like as much lead time as possible.”
Brigham acknowledged that the school can’t give too much notice of going to all online learning. “There’s a tradeoff there I recognize,” he said. “We don’t want widespread panic for weeks. But we’re getting to the point where, not this week, but maybe next week or the week after, that the nervousness about not knowing might be worse than the nervousness of knowing.”
ECC President Dr. Jon Bauer said the school works to provide as much notice as possible should it need to change course on instruction and feels confident officials will be able to do that. “And avoid that very sudden lurch to remote learning, which was unavoidable in the spring. But we’re hoping that’s not necessary in the fall.”
According to its website, ECC has a running total of 21 students and six employees who were confirmed COVID-19 cases since Aug. 20. Of those, 13 students and five employees have been enrolled in Union, with three Union students and one employee confirmed between Sept. 27 and Oct. 3.
In addition, 44 students are in quarantine with 33 enrolled in Union, officials said at the meeting.
Professional staff, including in the learning center, financial aid and advising, are seeing similar issues that Brigham brought up.
“We’ve had a lot of students, kind of, dealing with quarantine and sickness and the stress of the economy, losing their jobs,” counselor Jenny Kuchem said in her professional staff report. “We’ve just been trying to help out our students the best we can. The stress levels, the ability to problem solve is, I think, much different from other semesters.”
The school has quarantined students who come in close contact with a COVID-positive person, but has not had to move entire classes to online only “in most cases,” Bauer said.
“I think we’re being as precise as we can be in terms of our approach,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to continue to do that.”
But staff continues to monitor things like new cases and positivity rates in Franklin and Phelps counties, Bauer said.
Tuesday morning, Bauer said the school plans to continue its model of a mix on in-person and remote courses. “This delivery model has worked well this fall and we are hopeful that we will continue to offer both this fall semester,” he said in a statement to The Missourian.
“At the same time, we continue to track conditions on campus and in the community. Should the situation begin to change, we will offer as much lead time as possible to prepare for a transition to remote learning,” he said. “Our faculty have already developed plans for each course. The more likely scenario is that specific courses or activities may be modified, rather than a campus-wide shift. But we have learned that this virus is unpredictable, and we are prepared to respond in the best fashion for the safety of our students and employees.”
Michelle Smith, executive director of institutional effectiveness, sent a message to the board saying faculty is doing “tremendous work” supporting students who have to quarantine.
“It is a huge time undertaking to respond to students when they have to be quarantined, and our faculty have been encouraging and supportive to students at all levels,” Smith wrote.
Board member Audrey Freitag added that ECC has done a good job keeping the campus clean.
“I am very impressed with the sanitizing stations they have, with the gloves, with the masks, with the ointment for your hands,” she said. “I mean, it’s everywhere. The school is really working hard in keeping everybody healthy.”