MCC trustees discuss summer and fall classes in midst of pandemic

Middlesex Community College Provost and Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs Philip Sission gives a presentation Thursday on the school’s shift to remote learning.
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LOWELL — As schools across the country face the uncertainty of the coming months, Middlesex Community College is weighing how to approach summer and fall classes.

In a virtual Zoom meeting Thursday morning, the college’s board of trustees heard a presentation on the school’s recent shift to remote learning in the wake of the outbreak.

The board also received a financial update and briefly touched upon an outside evaluation of President James Mabry, which was originally set to be presented Thursday but has been delayed due to the public health crisis.

A total of 913 courses were converted for online instruction for the spring “mini-mester,” which began on March 30 after the college extended its spring break to provide more preparation time. In the weeks since MCC began offering remote learning and services, Dean of Students Pamela Flaherty said the college has also been keeping students connected through phone and email outreach, online tutoring, counseling and office hours, and virtual social events, such as a Khmer New Year celebration.

The spring term will culminate with a virtual commencement ceremony on May 21, according to the presentation, which will feature student speakers, music and the reading of the graduates’ names.

The college has adjusted its summer 2020 course catalog, shifting some classes that have traditionally been held in-person to a web-only format. Under the current plan, about 77% of the 218 courses set to be offered in the summer term would be held entirely remotely, while 22% would be held in-person and about 1.3% in a hybrid model combining online and in-person instruction, according to Philip Sisson, provost and vice president of academic and student affairs.

Sisson noted that for some courses, such as those offered in the nursing and allied health areas, switching to 100% remote instruction is not currently possible because of requirements around clinical experiences and lab time.

“It is a struggle that creates an impossibility based on the accreditation standards, and unless those accreditation standards change, we will have to be doing clinical practicum and face-to-face work, and that’s the biggest challenge that we have,” he said.

As of now, no such shift has been made for the fall term, with 75% of courses to be offered face-to-face, about 19% to be offered online and about 6% to be offered in a hybrid setting. But Sisson stressed that this could change depending on updated guidance from state and federal officials, and said the college hopes to prepare for multiple scenarios.

“What we don’t want to do is be in the situation that we were in the spring where we’re making a last minute decision. So my guess is that you’ll see, as we get more guidance from the governor and from the CDC, that we’ll have an opportunity over the next few months to get a better sense of exactly what fall will look like,” Sisson said. “And we will prepare for option A, option B and option C to be best prepared for the fall.”

Several trustees praised administrators, faculty, staff and students for their response to the pandemic, noting the speed with which in-person courses were converted for an online environment. Linda Nara, the board’s student trustee, said that though the changes have been stressful, she feels college staff have been supportive of students during this time.

Nara said that as a writing tutor and Blackboard Ambassador — a student who is embedded in classes to assist faculty and staff with the college’s online learning management system — she has helped other students connect with resources they need, such as financial assistance. She said she has also taken advantage of virtual offerings such as workshops hosted by the Asian American Connections Center.

“I feel like the college community is really working hard all together, so I’m really thankful that they’re doing all this stuff for us,” she said.

The board also briefly discussed the outside evaluation of Mabry, which was produced by AGB Consulting at a price tag of $75,000 and will likely be presented virtually next month, according to Chairman James Campbell. Members of the board’s presidential subcommittee had called for the evaluation to be completed sooner rather than later, and the trustees largely echoed that sentiment during the board’s full meeting Thursday.

Trustee Bopha Malone did raise a concern about putting too much on the board’s plate at a time when she said it should be focusing on the needs of the students. Campbell responded that he has been moving forward with the evaluation process based on feedback from the board and will continue to do so unless the board decides to take another direction.