Julie Voigt, dean of instruction at Sandhills Community College

Julie Voigt, dean of instruction at Sandhills Community College, in her office on March 24, 2020.

Most of Sandhills Community College’s courses were back in session on Monday in an entirely online format, but how the semester ends and students go on to qualify in professional fields is still up in the air.

The college convened its last day of classes before spring break on March 6, when the novel coronavirus seemed an altogether distant threat. But over the last two weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper has called a state of emergency and declared public K-12 schools closed — first until March 30, now until May 15 — as North Carolina has confirmed around 400 cases of COVID-19, including two in Moore County.

Sandhills classes were due to resume on March 16, but only online courses held to that schedule. Courses delivered face-to-face were suspended last week while the college’s administration regrouped to move those classes online. Faculty members new to the world of online pedagogy were paired up with colleagues for support.

On Monday, most of the buildings on Sandhills’ campus remained closed to students. Instead, classes got back underway using the Moodle course management platform.

“For lots of classes this wasn’t a big leap,” said Rebecca Roush, Sandhills’ vice president of academic affairs. “Many of our classes were already using Moodle to support in-class instruction. We’re in a wait-and-see mode, but we believe everything is in place.”

Boyd Library remains open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon. But instructors are also encouraged to stay off campus if they can.

As of now, Roush said that the college doesn’t plan to alter its academic calendar to reflect the lost week of classes. May 12 is the last scheduled day of spring semester classes. But practical instruction is integral to programs ranging from nursing to culinary arts — and that’s out of the picture for the time being.

“We’re making completion and success a priority and allowing some mechanisms of instruction that we might not normally because of COVID-19. We’re doing what we can to support our students and enable them to continue, even if it’s not the ideal situation,” Roush said.

For now, clinical time at local healthcare providers are off the table for students in the nursing program and pursuing other health sciences fields. Limitations on personal proximity are also affecting Sandhills’ other trade degree programs. The college is still evaluating how effective online simulations will prove as a substitute for time in the lab or equipment bay.

“Clinical sites are shutting down to outside students, largely because of the personal protective equipment shortage more than anything else,” said Roush. “If you think about automotive instructors, welding, things like that … we’re trying to decide if the virtual experience is giving them enough of what they need to be successful.”

On Sandhills’ continuing education front, learning is still going on at a distance — both online and through the mail. In a department focused on helping tradespeople earn workplace certifications in everything from machining and welding to construction management, that’s been a bold transition.

“Continuing education, as a rule, does not have online learning as a priority as most workforce training requires a hands-on experience,” said Andi Korte, Sandhills’ vice president for continuing education and workforce development.

“Therefore, we are not as easily equipped to seamlessly move to an online environment, but we are adapting quickly and continuing to work with our partnering agencies to meet the community needs.”

Moving those courses online has meant getting various professional associations, which will ultimately offer workplace credentials, to sign off on a dramatic shift in the way they’re taught — on very short notice.

“Right now they’ve made a big shift because most of them would never have let this be online,” said Korte.

In some cases, instructors are mailing packets of information and work to those enrolled in their classes who don’t have access to the internet or a computer at home. Though some instruction will continue that way, how credentialing exams will eventually be administered has yet to be ironed out.

“We’re trying to keep people engaged and keep them on track so that when this all comes to an end we can fast-track them to where they should be,” said Korte.

Korte predicted that this rapid adaptation to distance learning will probably influence how continuing education is offered long after Sandhills opens its doors again.

“In the end, when this is all done and we’ve all gotten over it, it’s probably going to move continuing education eons ahead of where we would have been,” she said.

“It’s forced everyone to really look at how we do our work, and I think we’re going to be much better off. It’s going to provide access to so many more people.”

Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or mkmurphy@thepilot.com.

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