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San Juan College adapts to COVID-19 changes

Fall recruitment still on track, officials say
San Juan College, with classes switched to remote learning, is working to ensure students feel connected to campus.

FARMINGTON – As schools across the Four Corners extend closures, San Juan College in Farmington has implemented changes to increase engagement with current and prospective students.

While New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced public schools in the state would remain closed for the rest of the academic year on March 27, the public health order did not include public colleges and universities. But shortly after, SJC announced it would also be closing for the remainder of the spring semester.

On Monday, the college also announced it would extend its stay-at-home order for nonessential employees, in line with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s announcement last week.

“Our focus remains on the safety of our community and our students. Our staff is dedicated to do all we can to help our students succeed,” said San Juan College President Dr. Toni Hopper Pendergrass, in a news release.

Despite concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect colleges in the upcoming academic year, Pendergrass told The Durango Herald enrollment for the fall semester is up about 5.8% from last fall.

Additionally, the college will receive $1.368 million in federal aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to disburse directly to students, said Edward DesPlas, executive vice president of administrative services at the college.

Pendergrass added the college is waiting to receive the funds and guidance from the federal government about how the aid should be disbursed.

With the decision to switch to remote learning, one of the most immediate needs for students was technology, DesPlas said.

“Wi-Fi is the biggest hurdle for a lot of students,” he said. “We have six sites on campus for students to park and access Wi-Fi.”

In addition to providing on-campus Wi-Fi sites and a resource list of local businesses with Wi-Fi in parking lots, DesPlas said the college has about 198 laptops available for students to check out. For those without access to Wi-Fi or computers, the college has also opened its print shop for professors to request materials printed for students that can then be mailed directly to students’ homes.

The college also made the decision for the first-half of the summer session to be conducted remotely, said Adrienne Forgette, vice president of learning at the college. She added the college is optimistic the session from June to August can be done face-to-face. But college administrators are still having conversations about what a fall semester would look like with remote learning and physical-distancing orders in place, Forgette said.

“We tried to think about every way we can to support students to keep them in class,” Forgette said.

Forgette added the college has used multiple methods, such as email, texting and phone calls, to reach out to students, and have encouraged the faculty to regularly contact their students at least once a week.

The goal is to encourage students to stay enrolled in classes. “We’ll help you be successful,” she said.

Pueblo Community College, with sites in Durango, Mancos and Bayfield, has also gone to a remote format in the past few months.

“Virtual instruction is not unique for us, so the transition was relatively painless for us,” said Patty Erjavec, president of the college.

Erjavec said the college anticipated its finances would be more impacted in the summer and fall semesters because of the pandemic. She added the college had also received additional funding through the CARES Act for students and institutional support.

“It is simply too soon to know how the pandemic will play out and if students and families will feel safe enrolling for fall classes,” Erjavec said. But with the added support available to students during this time – loaning out computers, additional financial support and efforts by faculty to ensure students complete spring credits – she was hopeful students would decide to continue with their college goals.

Connecting and checking in on students has been one of the most important strategies San Juan College has implemented in the past few months, said Boomer Appleman, vice president for student services. In the campaign to reach out to students, Appleman said the college had more than 30,000 engagements in the first week.

He added there are a few students who faculty and staff were not able to reach. and in order to assess how they were doing, the college reached out to local law enforcement to perform wellness checks.

“All three of the students were doing well,” he said.

While the college is working to develop a virtual tour for recruitment, Appleman said a lot of the new-student conversations have been by social media, email and phone calls.

“The concerns we hear are more focused on the economic concerns,” he said. “There’s been an uptick in conversations about financial aid and scholarships.”

The goal was the same for both current and prospective students.

“We’re trying to find normalcy, make sure they feel connected and that they belong,” Appleman said.

lweber@durangoherald.com

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