When the world shut down in mid-March 2020, colleges and universities were left scrambling to make important decisions at a moment’s notice.

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 had reached a global pandemic level on March 11, 2020.

Southwestern Community College President Barb Crittenden wrote in a message to SWCC students, faculty, and staff later that week, detailing the college’s plan for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. At the time, students were preparing for spring break the following week.

Part of that plan included transitioning all face-to-face classes to an online delivery format beginning on Monday, March 23, 2020. At the time, the college planned to reassess the situation on April 3. Southwestern, along with other colleges and universities around the world, eventually finished out the remainder of the semester online.

After colleges shut down and went online to close out the spring 2020 semester as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwestern faced many challenges to pull off an in-person fall semester.

“It was the unknown, the challenge of no one has ever been through this before. There was no blueprint for how to manage a pandemic and when do you return. No one wanted to put anyone’s health at risk,” Southwestern Dean of Student Services Kim Bishop said.

Dr. Dan Platt teaches an English class featuring socially distanced desks and students in facial coverings during the 2020-21 academic year.
Dr. Dan Platt teaches an English class featuring socially distanced desks and students in facial coverings during the 2020-21 academic year. - Photo by Joel Wires

Southwestern’s decision-makers met almost daily as guidelines continued to evolve throughout the spring and summer.

As administrators at colleges around the country wrestled with options for the fall 2020 semester, Southwestern Community College made the decision early to have a full offering of face-to-face classes.

The college offered some face-to-face options for summer classes (with physical distancing and face covering requirements in place), and on June 30, announced that the fall semester would proceed face-to-face.

Southwestern moved the start of the fall semester up a week from Aug. 26 to Aug. 19, allowing for students to leave campus at Thanksgiving break and finish the remaining two weeks of the Fall 2020 semester virtually from home.

“I think for our student population, they want to be face-to-face,” Bishop said. “I think that’s what Southwestern does really well is that personal contact with our students and being able to talk with them, and see them in classes every day. Being able to return to in-person classes this year was a tremendous asset to our students and our college.”

While other colleges and universities limited face-to-face offerings during the 2020-21 academic year, or even stayed completely virtual, Southwestern Community College was able to set itself apart by offering its full range of face-to-face options for the entire academic year.

This was made possible by Southwestern’s decision to adjust classroom sizes so desks could be socially distanced, as well as implementing a facial covering requirement and the placement of plexiglass barriers at strategic locations.

Rooms 180 and 220 in the Instructional Center, as well as the auditorium in the Performing Arts Center, traditionally used as large meeting spaces, were converted into classrooms for the nursing and music departments, respectively.

“Sometimes we’re at a disadvantage because we are so rural and remote, but this was one time it worked in our favor,” Bishop said. “Based on where we’re at, our counts and our COVID numbers were lower than some of our peers in more metropolitan areas. So for Southwestern, it was beneficial that we could return, we could see our students face-to-face.”

In a year that was difficult for so many people, whether it was from their family being affected by COVID-19, or experiencing anxiety or depression brought on by the pandemic, returning to in-person learning provided at least one small step toward normalcy.

Students work on an assignment in a classroom during the 2020-21 academic year. Southwestern returned to in-person learning for the start of the Fall 2020 semester.
Students work on an assignment in a classroom during the 2020-21 academic year. Southwestern returned to in-person learning for the start of the Fall 2020 semester. - Photo by Joel Wires

“I definitely had some anxiety and uncertainty about teaching in person this year,” said Dr. Dan Platt, English instructor at Southwestern Community College. “Some of the tools and tricks I use as a teacher – like breaking out for small group discussions and having students move around the classroom – were more difficult in the socially distanced environment. But my students showed impressive resilience, and they brought a positive attitude that helped make this strange and difficult year seem more manageable.”

Given all of the circumstances of the 2020-21 academic year, the general feeling around Southwestern was that the year went well.

Southwestern was able to finish the academic year with three separate commencement ceremonies in one day, allowing for graduating students to invite a limited number of family members and friends to watch them graduate in person.

“Ultimately, I realized this year that face-to-face interactions with students are vital to my teaching, and also that those in-person connections with teachers and classmates were important to getting some struggling students across the finish line this year,” Platt said.

“Reflecting on the past year, I don’t think it could have gone any better given all the circumstances,” Bishop added. “I think our students rose to the occasion and did a great job of adhering to the protocols in place. I think our faculty members did a fantastic job teaching not only face-to-face, but also simultaneously via Zoom, as well, to students who had to quarantine or were ill. I think given the limitations on what we were able to do with student activities, our staff did a great job creating the best environment they could and serving our students well.”