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Massachusetts Community Colleges Struggle to Get Classes Online

Community colleges across Massachusetts are having a difficult time going remote because of financial limitations. Additionally, many of the students do not have access to the technology needed to go remote.

A person sitting at a table working at a laptop and writing with a pen.
(TNS) — Strapped for financial resources and without billion-dollar endowments to tap, community colleges across Massachusetts have been scrambling to adjust thousands of courses to the new, remote reality wrought by COVID-19.

While their better-funded, four-year counterparts have largely had web-based classes up and running for at least a week now, many of the state’s 15 community colleges are just beginning online instruction Monday.

“We didn’t have the ability to just flip a switch,” said Tom Sannicandro, director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges. “This was a lot of work.”

The Massachusetts community college system serves some 150,000 students from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. Many are students of color, more than half are low-income, and plenty are supporting families of their own, Sannicandro said.

“They don’t all have the technology they need to move remote,” he said. “Some don’t have computers at home. Some are using phones only. Some areas that are in the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley don’t even have broadband.”

Over the past couple weeks, officials have scrambled to purchase laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students and have worked to find ways to continue classes remotely by web, phone or even by mail — resurrecting the correspondence courses of yesteryear. The college presidents have also held daily phone calls to assess their needs.

“It’s been amazing and inspiring the way the faculty and the presidents and the students have all stepped up to really make this education available,” Sannicandro said.

But the technology, IT infrastructure upgrades and deep cleans across campuses have already cost the colleges a combined roughly $17 million, Sannicandro said. It’s estimated that price tag will grow to $45 million through the summer when also accounting for lost revenue.

“Community colleges are already strapped in terms of financial resources,” said Valerie Roberson, president of Roxbury Community College, adding that in trying to keep costs low for students, “We don’t have a lot of resources to be able to make the investments that we need.”

Just 15% to 20% of RCC’s courses were offered online before coronavirus hit. While some face-to-face classes already had online components — a big advantage for students and faculty alike — both groups often lacked the technology for a full digital reboot.

“Try writing a paper on your cellphone,” Roberson said. “That’s where the computer is going to be really important.”

Roberson estimates roughly 1,000 students — about half the enrollment at RCC, where more than 80% of the students are low-income, more than half have children and upward of 60% work part-time — lack the resources to continue their coursework. RCC has been soliciting donations to help students get access to laptops and hotspots, but so far has only been able to fulfill about 25% of that need, she said.

“The world changed almost overnight,” Roberson said. “It’s a challenge but I’m really glad to see how many of our faculty and staff have just done whatever we can to continue to be that lifeline for students.”

Not every class is able to go virtual, though. Some labs and clinical work have simply been postponed, with officials hoping against hope “that by May, perhaps, we’ll be able to get them into those labs,” said Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, which has campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill.

NECC also runs the “largest police academy in Massachusetts,” plus emergency medical and health care programs that Glenn said are vital to fighting the pandemic.

“If that training stops, guess what? A few months from now we don’t have the first responders to continue to respond to this crisis,” Glenn said. “Community colleges cannot simply close our doors and wait until this goes away. We’re right there on the front lines.”

©2020 the Boston Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.