Perseverance in a Pandemic


As the spring 2020 semester progressed, Assistant Professor James Jarc, EdD, was nearing the end of his second year of full-time teaching.

Unlike the prior year when he was named the Teaching Excellence Award recipient in front of the typical commencement crowd of 1,000-plus graduates and their families, spring 2020 would go down in history as anything but typical.

When classes adjourned for spring break on March 13, no one expected it to be the last day that students would set foot on campus for the semester. With the coronavirus taking a foothold in the state, COTC transitioned to remote classes and services on March 23 — with six weeks remaining in the semester — in compliance with the Ohio Department of Health’s stay-at-home order. Some students, faculty and staff did not even return to their classrooms or offices throughout the summer semester as COTC carried on with virtual operations.

“The speed at which all of these changes happened was astounding,” said Jarc. “I really saw an amazing spirit of collaboration emerge among faculty, staff and administration. People were pitching in wherever they were needed, and everyone really stepped up to the challenge. I was inspired by that consistently student-centered commitment to high quality teaching and learning.”

Moving from In-Person to Remote

COTC’s technical programs are designed primarily with hands-on laboratory experiences and required experiential learning. While this equips students with job skills to succeed in the workforce, this method presented a hurdle to students and faculty alike when the pandemic hit.

“One of the obvious challenges we faced was with educational technology,” said Jarc, who teaches digital media design technology and has a professional background in digital media and technology implementation.

He added that instructors were inundated with “so many articles and think pieces about ‘the best way to teach online.’ It can be really overwhelming to sort through … to get a course into an engaging and meaningful remote format.” He too contributed to a CNBC article titled “The psychological reasons why everyone’s burned out on video conferencing, according to experts.”

So to help, COTC administration canceled classes on what would have been the week following spring break. Instead, faculty were invited to workshops on implementing remote teaching and utilizing COTC’s online learning management system. A faculty resource website was launched to provide a reference collection, and the information technology services staff held open office hours for faculty to receive additional support. Provost Eric Heiser, PhD, sent out weekly emails with updates and offers to help overcome teaching challenges. Jarc, along with the rest of the faculty, transitioned to remote classes, converting lectures to recordings; setting up online meetings; and providing students with digital versions of lecture material, notes, worksheets and homework.

At the same time, idle healthcare labs were emptied of high-demand personal protective equipment that was donated to local hospitals. COTC’s nursing and surgical technology programs and Department of Public Safety donated more than 3,000 pairs of sterile gloves and nearly 25,000 non-sterile gloves, 100 surgeon caps and nearly 3,000 surgical face masks, 42 disposable gowns and about 50 Tyvek suits, 50 bouffant caps, 100 shoe covers, and boxes of hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes to Coshocton Regional Medical Center, Genesis HealthCare System, Knox Community Hospital and Licking Memorial Health Systems.

“What impacted us the most was loss of access to our clinical facilities,” said Melinda Brillhart, EdD, diagnostic medical sonography technology program director and associate professor. “Our second-year students were very worried that with campus and clinicals suddenly closed, their graduation would be delayed. Our first-year students were very worried about being fully prepared for their initial clinical experience since their hands-on experience and training in scan lab was cut short.”

Instead, Brillhart said students were given virtual access to ultrasound simulators located at the college. This allowed them to view ultrasound case studies and practice modules and protocols from home. Their participation could be monitored by the instructor as well.

All 18 sonography students did graduate. COTC President John M. Berry, PhD, conferred degrees and certificates to a total of 235 students via video message at the completion of spring semester. A particular point of pride for the college: COTC’s 76 associate degree nursing students completed about two weeks early and received temporary licenses permitted through House Bill 197. COTC was one of only two community colleges in the state to arrange for nursing students to graduate early, allowing them to move immediately to the pandemic front lines.

As summer semester began in mid-May, some in-person labs resumed with COVID-19 protocols in place and clinical facilities began welcoming students back.

Navigating the Trauma

The coronavirus pandemic upended the lives of COTC’s students. Its rapid and widespread effects tipped the delicate balance of family, work and school for everyone. This was particularly hard-hitting to COTC students, 80% of whom attend part time to allow time for work, family and other responsibilities.

“The abrupt switch to remote learning challenged a lot of aspects of the educational process,” said Jarc. “I think one of the biggest challenges was navigating the trauma of the experience in compassionate and supportive ways with the students.”

Jarc, Brillhart and many faculty turned to the video conferencing application Zoom to meet with students both in groups and individually to continue learning as well as to maintain a human connection. Staff worked from home offices to provide support services — from academic advising to personal counseling to tutoring, all of which are vital to the students’ well-being and ability to learn. COTC maintained an open computer lab on each campus for those without internet or a computer at home. Many students reported that virtual appointments worked well. They were able to receive the same services without driving to campus, which allowed time for other priorities in their life.

“Most of our students are planners; they have to be planners because they have families, jobs and obligations on top of their educational responsibilities at COTC. Without knowing what would happen or how their academic schedule might potentially change, everyone felt a loss of control,” said Brillhart. “We have a workable plan in place that ensures we provide quality education so that our students can meet program expectations and learning objectives in order to get them to that finish line on time.”

The social and emotional toll of the pandemic was oftentimes overshadowed by the financial fallout and unprecedented unemployment. COTC was granted funding under the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to provide emergency grants to students impacted by the pandemic. The Office of Financial Aid quickly developed a one-page application and notified all eligible students of the application process. The staff’s dedication resulted in the swift transfer of funding to students in need. COTC exhausted the funds, distributing $843,523 to 528 students between April 22 and June 9.

In addition, President Berry announced COTC’s We’re Here for Our Students Promise, pledging new measures and extended support for students. In continuing COTC’s student-first philosophy, it stated that the college promises to do everything in its power to ensure that students’ educational paths are not adversely affected during the COVID-19 pandemic, including maintained access to all services, continuation of their course sequence and no loss of financial aid.

Future is Bright

Even in a challenging year, COTC remains strong. Amid widespread health and economic uncertainty across the state and country, and despite conducting almost all instruction in new, remote formats to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, COTC exceeded its summer semester 2020 enrollment goal. Preliminary summer enrollment headcount was 1,322 students, which was slightly above goal and consistent with the same semester last year, reported President Berry.

“The message here is clear — even during the challenges brought about by the pandemic, our community members trust COTC to continue offering high quality, relevant and affordable education,” he said.

Fortunately, progress continues at the college as two construction projects are underway. Work on the John and Mary Alford Center for Science and Technology on the Newark campus is approximately 45% complete, and the project is still on schedule for substantial completion in March 2021. In addition, the state controlling board approved the release of previously secured capital appropriations for the COTC Pataskala campus renovation project. Construction is currently underway, and the campus re-opening is anticipated for summer 2021.

Looking ahead, COTC announced a partial return to campus for autumn semester which begins August 25. Key elements of the plan are the continuation of remote delivery for lecture-only classes and the resumption of full face-to-face instruction for classes that require a student’s physical presence in a laboratory (primarily healthcare program labs).

And for the first time, COTC had more than $1 million in scholarships available in the 2020-21 academic year for all students — including new students, those transferring from another institution and continuing students — with a special allocation for displaced workers impacted by the pandemic. Scholarships are made possible by the generous support of COTC donors.

“COTC will play a key role in putting people back in the workforce and on the path to financial recovery. Consider COTC if you’ve lost your job or need to train for a new career. And for recent high school graduates wanting to earn a four-year degree, COTC offers affordable transfer options with the benefit of staying close to home during this time of uncertainty,” said President Berry. “We’re here for you.”

COTC is a fully accredited, public college dedicated to providing high-quality, accessible programs of technical education in response to current and emerging employment needs. COTC is the only technical college in Ohio operating four full-service campus locations: Newark, Coshocton, Knox and Pataskala.