Higher education leaders: 'We have had to pivot' during pandemic

·3 min read

Apr. 28—An abrupt switch to online classes and continuously changing guidelines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic rocked colleges and universities around the world over the past year.

Local institutions say they are still feeling the fallout and trying to plan for the future as the situation continues to evolve.

Janet L. Grady, chairwoman of nursing and health sciences division at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown; Erin McCloskey, assistant vice president at St. Francis University; Steve Nunez, president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College; and Kara Laskowski, human communication studies department chairwoman at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, recapped some of the challenges and lessons learned Tuesday during a virtual town hall.

It was the latest installment of COVID Questions, a weekly forum sponsored by In This Together Cambria, Pitt-Johnstown and The Tribune-Democrat.

"We have had to pivot," Grady said. "I'm just getting tired of that word. We've been pivoting since March 1, 2020."

McCloskey said the daily shifts and new requirements have taken a toll on both students and staff.

"We are a little exhausted at having to be nimble, but it's important," McCloskey said.

Institutions developed advisory groups or other mechanisms to adapt the ever-changing situation and guidelines to the specific needs of each college, the panelists said.

None of the institutions represented has plans to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students in the fall term.

St. Francis has hosted several mass vaccination clinics and encourage students to participate, McCloskey said.

Penn Highlands students are also being educated about the value of vaccination, Nunez said.

"What we can do is make it really easy for students to find vaccine sites," he said.

Even as more people are getting vaccines and new cases trend lower, there are still questions about the coming fall term.

Enrollment numbers continue to lag.

"The national landscape for enrollment has everyone concerned," Laskowski said.

"There is a lot of conflicting information out there."

While a large majority of students is not satisfied with online learning, a small segment would rather not return to in-person classes, she said.

Nunez said it's hard to put a finger on what is dragging on enrollment.

"We keep waiting for the (enrollment) resurgence," he said. "When the economy is in a downturn, people often turn to community colleges, but we didn't even get that."

Some lessons learned through the pandemic will benefit schools and students in the future, Grady said. She gave the example of a professor who recorded his lab work so students could watch it and better prepare for their return to lab classes.

"They use that time with him to improve their techniques," she said.

McCloskey commended staff and students for embracing the new approach to education and asked for understanding from families and the public.

"Just like the virus evolves, we need to evolve as an institution," McCloskey said.

"But we simply don't have all the answers. Families and community members have to be patient. This is a situation none of us has ever experienced before."

In closing, Grady said it was good to hear from her colleagues at other institutions.

"It is comforting to hear that we all have similar issues," she said. "That's a benefit for us on the panel, just hearing it from each other."

Tuesday's forum was moderated by Chip Minemyer, editor of The Tribune-Democrat.

Recordings of all COVID Questions forums, resources and information can be found at www.inthistogethercambria.com.