“We don’t exactly know yet, of course, because of the duration, the severity of the economic downturn caused by this crisis remains unknown,” said Hans, who was hired to lead the NCCCS while serving as an advisor to then-UNC System President Margaret Spellings. “I’m hoping it will be shorter rather than longer and mitigate some of those effects.”
The system did receive about $120 million from the recently signed federal CARES Act. Hans says about $60 million of the funding will go toward providing financial aid to community college students affected by the pandemic.
“The other $60 million will go to institutions, in part to upgrade our online learning offerings, to make sure the college campus facilities are all safe, and we’re implementing the best health practices, so that when we can welcome students back to campus, we’ll be ready for them,” he said.
System leaders made the decision in mid-March to move as many on-campus classes as possible to online-only, to ensure the safety of students and employees. Hans says that involved about one-third of the system’s 700,000 students. He admits the abrupt transition had some bumps, specifically with regards to student access to technology and high-speed internet in rural areas of the state.
“We’ve got to expand our access, our connectivity, make sure we’re able to provide advising, proctoring, support online to students, many of whom function better in organized settings,” Hans said about meeting the challenge of improving the distance learning experience. “I don’t want them left behind, because their educational opportunities are just as important as anyone else’s. Now, our colleges have really rallied and risen to the occasion here. A lot of creative approaches such as drive-in parking lot WIFI access, where students will stay in their car and get a signal on their laptop or tablet. Many of our colleges have figured out ways to provide low-cost devices to students, and I’m so proud of them because that’s the typical can-do community college spirit. We figure out a way to get it done.”
Enrollment numbers for the state’s community college campuses are an unknown for the rest of 2020. Some students impacted severely by the pandemic may not be able to return immediately. However, with a massive surge in unemployment claims in North Carolina, institutions could see an increase in new students. Hans says administrators have tried to keep employee layoffs to a minimum, so schools are ready to respond. Representatives from Brunswick Community College in Bolivia, Southeastern Community College in Whiteville and Bladen Community College in Dublin all said this week no employees have been laid off or furloughed at those institutions.
“We know that if historical trends hold true, in economic downturns like recessions community college enrollment actually spikes,” Hans said. “So, we want to be ready when our friends and neighbors come through our doors to community colleges and be there for them, to help them become employed again, to update their skills, become reskilled. It’s necessary to have our faculty and staff in place to do so effectively.”
Not all areas of North Carolina have been impacted equally by the coronavirus. Hans said there are some community colleges in the system that may be able to begin offering more face-to-face learning opportunities sooner than others. System leaders, he says, are leaving those decisions in the hands of the local administrations, while closely following guidance of federal and state elected leaders and health experts.
“What we have done is provide a framework for the colleges to operate under, to provide guidance about the public health and public safety portions,” he said. “We’ve remained open, if the local colleges felt they could do so safely. We will expand that during the month of May to include the trades, construction, manufacturing, more healthcare programs, where we feel as though it can be done safely. But if for any reason our colleges feel it would endanger our faculty and students, we don’t want to push. Again, priority number one is their health and safety.”
“It’s my intention from the community college side that, if we can do so safely, that we will be completely open in the fall,” Hans added. “But we won’t know until closer to that time and we’ll have to rely upon the advice and guidance of our elected officials and public health leaders as well.”
Peter Hans was born in Southport and spent most of his childhood in Brunswick County before his family moved to Hendersonville, where he graduated high school in 1987. Hans attended the University of North Carolina, graduating with a degree in political science, and later earned a Master’s Degree in Extension Studies from Harvard. He served as a member of the State Board of Community Colleges and later as Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. We discussed many other issues about the current state of the community college system, his love for the coast, and where he stands in the barbecue sauce debate (vinegar-based or tomato-based). I hope you enjoy the interview.
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