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'Q'-Tips: Expert Advice for Hacking the 'New Normal' This Fall Semester


Fall semester classes at South Texas College begin August 24.  With a looming health crisis, administrators unveil a plan to launch classes that is built around student safety and flexibility. Administrators and faculty offer some insights and tips for hacking the 'New Normal', this fall.

A new semester. A new normal.

As the battle against COVID-19 continues to threaten higher education this fall, South Texas College is bringing flexibility to the fight.

With plans in place for an 80-percent online/20-percent hybrid model prioritizing student safety, STC is ensuring that students don’t miss a beat, even as the health crisis evolves. And though it may have commanded the attention and effort of virtually every member of the campus community, South Texas College is officially ready for the re-boot.

“Everyone pitched in. For our part, we just try to be very flexible.”
Dr. Anahid Petrosian, Chief Academic Officer for STC

From faculty and facilities to scheduling and support, the cross-departmental effort entailed a review of online and in-person offerings from every possible perspective. By front-loading the considerable logistics and legwork this summer, the College hopes to eliminate confusion and relieve stress for students in the fall.

“I think this is going to change our students in how they are students,” philosophizes Dr. Brett Millan, English Professor and online education innovator at STC. “When we establish those lines of communication with classmates and faculty…[we] create a network of support.”

So… what sorts of changes can South Texas College students expect this semester?

Exceptional Faculty/Online-Approved.

On the distance learning side, STC has delivered on plans to accredit virtually every faculty member to teach online, through Online Training Certification (OTC) courses. According to Dr. Petrosian, this will bolster the College’s already robust online offerings, while creating the infrastructure necessary to host the influx of remote learners.

“When we come back in fall, we’ll be in a much, much better situation, based on faculty that will be very well prepared in best practices for online teaching,” says the Chief Academic Officer, who reports that 98 percent of faculty has completed the OTC course.

More Virtual Options.

Already a pioneer in Texas online education, STC has expanded virtual offerings by moving thousands of sections online. In addition to Blackboard-powered lectures, nearly four in five sections will now meet remotely. Students will have the option to choose their method of learning and will not necessarily be limited to their initial choice.

The idea, says Dr. Petrosian, is to give “students flexibility to change their minds,” potentially transferring into open in-person sections, or dropping hybrid classes to join online sections before the semester begins. Meanwhile, if state coronavirus mandates were to shift, “we know we have to be ready at any moment to take everything online.”

24/7 Remote Support.

If the pandemic has a silver lining for higher education, it may be the fast-tracking of distance learning protocols. In fact, to many pioneers of online education, the remote revolution was destined to happen independent of the health crisis.

“Students who were afraid of online learning before…will realize the advantages online learning can provide,” says Dr. Millan, who received a Distinguished Teaching & Learning Award for his contribution to online education in 2008. “[It’s] more intimate, ironically.”

With new ways to connect come new challenges. On the student support side, STC has committed to the full remote conversion of counseling, career, financial aid, academic support, and transfer services through the Centers of Learning Excellence. As part of the shift, faculty office hours will also be moved online.

In addition, the College has contracted with Blackboard Student Help Desk to provide after-hours support, and the Distance Learning department will offer newly enhanced online orientation sessions.

As for those students concerned that they “just can’t learn online”?

“They can,” says Dr. Millan. “It [just] takes a different set of priorities and skills.”

Pre-Screening Checklist.

While faculty geared up to go remote, the facilities and maintenance teams were busy solving a Rubik’s Cube of logistics. The primary challenge? How to communicate and enforce an ever-changing set of guidelines, while continuing to deliver a worthwhile classroom experience.

The result was the South Texas College Policies List and Daily COVID-19 Screening Checklist, published in late July. The documents, available in PDF and physical format, outline common coronavirus symptoms and procedures for locating information and assistance. The handouts will continue to evolve as campus protocols and state guidelines shift. “Every week, we’re still reviewing,” says Dr. Petrosian.

Reduced Traffic, Distanced Desks.

Don’t be surprised if many campus hallways look more like ghost towns this semester, says Dr. Millan.

The desolation is by design. In collaboration with facilities and custodial employees, college leadership has drawn a complex blueprint for staggered use of buildings, floors, and classrooms this fall. Meanwhile, in-person classes will be limited to 20 students, divided into two cohorts of 10, with desks more than six feet apart to ensure student safety and comply with the governor’s orders.

“We’ve never had large class sizes,” says Dr. Millan. “[Now] it’s organized so we don’t have sections back to back.”

Beyond in-class distancing, the knotty logistics of fall semester safety entailed an intense review of the buildings themselves. “You have to disinfect… if you put a class on the second floor, there are ADA issues,” says the professor, referencing just two of the most pressing logistical concerns.

The solution? Limiting hallway use to one side at a time and running elevators on a reduced schedule to coincide with regular custodial visits.

“The college has a detailed routine in place,” ensures Dr. Petrosian.

Up With PPE.

Delivering a safe, successful semester means more than just mandating masks. And while face coverings will be required for all in-person learners while on-campus, they’re just part of the PPE plan.

The College undertook a large-scale purchasing effort over the summer, working with faculty and maintenance staff to identify the materials most critical to the safety of the campus community. The plan is to supplement the required masks with optional face shields, intensified custodial schedules, and additional protective coverings for hands-on labs.

“First and foremost we had to think about student safety,” says Dr. Millan. “We’re ready for students when they’re ready for us.”

View Tips for a Fantastic Fall Semester