South Plains College Responds to COVID-19 crisis

LEVELLAND -- When Covid 19 began spreading across the state of Texas, the administrative and instructional leaders of South Plains College gathered to determine what path the college would follow as it prepared to handle the crisis. Like other institutions in the state, the timing of the event occurred shortly before spring break. A plan for the remainder of the semester was at the top of the list.

South Plains College President Robin Satterwhite said he equated the situation to building an airplane while you’re flying in an airplane. “We didn’t know what to expect or how dramatic the shift would be,” he said. “We didn’t realize what parameters were going to be placed upon the college or the students.   We didn’t know to what degree our society was going to shut down or be open.

“So, in the same breath, we had to keep educating students,” he said. “We can’t just stop educating students. We had to figure out what modality are we going to use.”

The challenge was pretty clear – how does the college handle the safety of the students, faculty and staff knowing that they would not be able to remain on campus. The Texas Higher Education Coordination Board provided a response to what was happening in society, he said.

“It was a balance between everything, and changing on a daily basis,” he said. “It was a six-month time of constant change with no direction and no road map. Not only are you trying to balance instruction, first and foremost, we wanted to keep everyone safe. We did not want to be in a situation where we were putting our students, our faculty or our staff in harm’s way.”

Dr. Satterwhite said he relied on his allies among the Association of Community Colleges. Over the next nine months, the members met daily for weeks before cutting back to twice weekly, then monthly for several months and eventually decreasing to weekly meetings over several months. The Coordinating Board joined in those meetings, and provided updates on the legislature and the Center for Disease Control. 

Because the Governor of Texas Greg Abbott soon would issue an order to shut down the state, the college decided to extend spring break an additional week to allow its faculty the time to move its courses online.  


Technology Boot Camp

Instructional Designer Heather Medley answered the challenge of how to prepare the faculty to transition from the classroom to online learning. Although some of the professors had never taught online classes, they were given a week to learn the basics how to teach in the online format. 

“We spent that week doing what we called ‘PD in your PJs,’” she said. “Professional Development in Pajamas allowed us to walk people through the nuts and bolts of moving courses online.”  

Medley’s plan was to utilize Zoom and Collaborate to get faculty members familiar with the online concept. She said putting a class online is not the same as teaching in a classroom. Instructors had to rethink how to present their lectures as well as figure out how to achieve their goals through this new format. 

“Going online is sometimes like putting a square peg in round hole, it can be frustrating at times, but our faculty rose to the challenge,” she said. 

At the end of the spring semester Medley and Kayla Perrin, Director of Information Services Customer Support, visited each campus to provide tools and software to assist the instructors. The college had purchased 2/1 laptops and tablets for each faculty member. Instructors were encouraged to record their lectures, create videos and conduct demonstrations to enhance the online experience for the students. 

“It was amazing to see instructors who had a lot of online experience work alongside those who had no experience prior to this event,” she said. “Our faculty was awesome.” 

Medley said the faculty were invited to use Screencast-O-Mastic software to add closed captioning for all their students. Some of the instructors opted to teach hybrid courses with some online and some face-to-face components. Through the use of software programs including Go React, Ed Puzzle and GRADESCOPE, the instructors could bring what was created on the laptop into the classroom and connect it to a Dell hub and monitor. The wireless connection also allowed the instructor to use a digital pen to share their material on the screen. The classroom was equipped with a soundbar which supported an interactive chat. 

“We have new resources available and we keep adding to our library to make the online experience better for the student, “she said. “They were able to interact and connect with their students.”


Safety is Vital to Success

There were many meetings taking place across the state regarding Covid 19, and some meetings were happening across South Plains College.   

“We immediately identified a health advisor, DeEtte Edens, to be able to give us good health advice  on ‘what is safe’ and ‘what is not safe for our students, faculty and staff,’” Dr. Satterwhite said. “Everyone is forming their own opinion on what is safe, so we really had to focus on the facts.

“The facts were that it is safe to put on a mask,” he said. “That is the only way that we can do this safely and keep people at lower risk of spreading the virus. We had to rely on the facts from a qualified health official, and DeEtte did a beautiful job stepping in that role.”

Edens, associate director of health and wellness, attended community meetings and college meetings to help figure out what steps were needed to maintain the safety of the faculty, students and staff. She worked with departments to properly align classrooms, she created a dashboard to record the number of cases on each campus and she gave assistance on safely arranging conference rooms for special events and meetings.


The Summer, Fall and Beyond

In late spring, the SPC Academic Council began discussions on moving forward from the summer into the fall semester. According to Alan Worley, dean of Arts and Sciences, the college opted to transfer all courses to the online format for the first summer session.

“We made the decision to transfer everything online while we were still planning for the fall,” he said. “We had 95 percent of our course offerings online for summer II. There were a few flex and face-to-face classes.  Simultaneously, we planned for the fall really changing in regards for the modality because we were trying to meet our student’s needs.

Worley said more than 100 schedule changes had to happen in order to provide as many online courses as needed to meet the demand. The departments met in the summer, and faculty were invited to join virtually to help create a plan of action moving into the fall.

“Even as we prepared for the fall, we weren’t sure of what it was going to look like,” he said.

The fall semester gave faculty the ability to teach a class and have a student join virtually. Faculty was given the option to use Zoom, Collaborate or Microsoft Teams for their online classes. Unfortunately, Worley said some students would get lost and failed to thrive in this environment. The enrollment numbers showed the program offered 50 percent of courses online, 30 to 40 percent were flex classes and 10 to 20 percent were face-to-face.

Worley said courses like racquetball, dance and choir had to be canceled due to safety concerns. To accommodate the band ensembles, he said the classes were taught outside.

For those students attending classes face-to-face, there was a reduction in the number of students allowed to participate. A schedule was developed for each classroom in which a sticker was placed on a workspace where a student could sit. For example, a student who attended the 9:30 a.m. class could not sit in the same area as the student who had been in the room at 8 a.m.

Worley said faculty members and students would wipe down their workspaces and sanitize their hands prior to leaving the classroom.

“Everybody did a good job and many students wanted to stay with the face-to-face classes,” he said. “The disappointing thing was the students were not getting to enjoy the college experience as they normally would have. There were no clubs or organizations meeting (unless virtually) and the opportunities to get to know their classmates were limited in many cases.”

Worley said one good outcome of the experience focused on the instructors being able to upload all of their videos. This permitted students to view the videos as many times as they needed to be able to complete their weekly assignments and discussions, and stay engaged in the process.

He did note that while instructors could view their students’ faces online, they could not tell whether the student was focused on the lecture or not. When students had to be quarantined, they would be out of face-to-face classes for two weeks and some experienced difficulty with the transition to go fully online and back to face-to-face. This was not an issue for fully online courses, since they could retain that modality even during quarantine.  


SPC Takes Care of the Students

The lifeblood of South Plains College and any other educational institution is the student population. The college was committed to serving the students and providing the support they needed to continue their education.

According to Dr. Stan DeMerritt, vice president for Student Affairs, there were many things that had to be resolved including end-of-the-semester events such as retirement receptions, student awards assembly and graduation. The Executive Council of the college met daily to address the Covid-19 related issues and its impact on their areas.

“We first focused on closing out the term and how was that going to look,” DeMerritt said. We determined that we were going to mail out diplomas, certificates and regalia for graduation and we tried to make it special.”

DeMerritt said that changes were needed to prepare for summer and fall registration. One area that changed its operations was Advising, he said.

“We changed our models on how to provide service to the students,” he said. “We had to think of how to continue to social distance but still meet the needs of the students who wanted to be seen see face-to-face. We kept some appointments, then went to first-come-first-serve, and eventually reached a point where a  student was no longer advised at a specific campus but rather by an advisor who understood what their needs were and that advisor could be from at any location.”

“Students were met where they needed to be met, and it was exciting to see that we were able to service students better in that modality,” he said. “The feedback from students was tremendous.”

He added that students who needed forms from Admission and Records could call and leave a message for a staff member who would send the form to their college-issued email address. A lot of simple processes were done to make it convenient for the students.

In the Student Life area, the college had to discontinue high touch areas under the guidance of the CDC. This led to the removal of pool tables, ping pong tables and video gaming consoles. Anything that would be difficult to sanitize after use had to be removed for safety reasons. The college is still looking at other options regarding safely reopening the game room.

Although there were federal funds awarded to the college through the CARES Act, it was primarily focused on academic and operational areas. A huge portion of the Act addressed the needs of the students. SPC spent $2.5 million on the needs of the students.

These awards focus directly on the needs of the students including academic support by providing technology (computers/access), housing, utilities, food, childcare, transportation, healthcare, transportation and mental health expenses. 

In spring 2021, South Plains College was awarded an additional $2,591,110 for student allocation from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II (HEERF II) of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA). Before awarding the funds, the college required students to complete a Self-Assessment form which provided funding based on their levels of need. The students used a scale to report one to five with one being  “I’m okay” to five saying “I’m in crisis.”

In addition to the funds, the students who needed immediate assistance by selecting five for crisis also received referrals for on campus services to address their issues.

The total applications received through March 10 was 1,527. There were 56 incomplete applications, and 27 denied applications. There were no open/working cases, one monitoring cases, 1401 closed cases and 1355 unduplicated awards. Students received awards representing $1,405,500 or 54.24 percent of allocation. 

“The funding has been a lifeline for a lot of our students,” said Dr. Lynne Cleavinger, dean of Students. “I know that some students, because of Covid 19, have had a large decrease in income because they were working in the service industry which came to a halt.

“So, I know that the funding has helped students with transportation, pay renting, bills, child care assistance and linking to food resources as well,” she said.

Dr. Cleavinger said she has received several emails and thank you cards from students saying how much the funding has helped. Because of privacy issues, she is unable to share the emails and thank you cards from appreciative students.

“And while it’s not us that’s doing it, we’re just making sure that it gets to the students,” she said. 

For students who did not qualify for the HEERF II funding, the college received a Texas Emergency grant to assist some of those students.

Dr. Cleavinger said, “We want to be there to be able to support our students and we’re looking beyond Covid 19 because those needs are still going to be in place.”


Flexibility Will Be Key

“We came together as a team at the college, beautifully,” Dr. Satterwhite said. “We had faculty and staff saying ‘here’s how we do it.’ And then we had a spirit of how do we do what’s best for our students. Everyone put this at the forefront of our conversations.”

Dr. Satterwhite said he is looking forward to seeing students return to campus. What students say and their actions conflict with each other. The students say they want to more face-to-face classes because they want to get back to normalcy. However, the students are still registering for more online classes.

“We had more face-to-face classes that were not being filled, and they had to be shifted to online classes because there was a wait list for the online offerings,” he said.

Dr. Satterwhite said the college will have to continue to be flexible as society recovers from Covid 19 and reopens.

“We want to try to bring students back; we want a residential experience here at the college; and we want a face-to-face instructional experience to the best of our ability,” he said. “We are going to have to be very receptive to what the students want. We have to try to meet the students where the students are.

“I’m hopeful that when we have widespread immunization, people will feel safe, and we’ll be able to remove the psychological and the physical fear that it’s not safe to be in the classroom,” he said.