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Coronavirus Pandemic Presents Kansas City Area Community Colleges With Opportunities And Challenges

As schools finalize plans for the fall semester, community college responses across the metro are varied. All say their faculty and students are adapting well to changing learning modalities brought on by the pandemic—and all of them see a combination of challenges and opportunities.

Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, had considered giving its roughly 16,000 students the option of dividing their class time between online and in-person. But, Blake Fry, its executive director of communications, says that quickly changed.

“A couple weeks ago, we made a decision that all the classes we can teach virtually in the fall will be taught virtually. With the case numbers not going down, we thought that was the smartest move for us at this point,” Fry says.

MCC has five physical campuses, and Fry says it considers its online learning platform to be a sixth. He says MCC currently has fewer students enrolled for fall this year than last, but a recent uptick in prospective students signing up to take placement tests makes him think more will still enroll.

Comparably sized Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, has seen a slight rise in enrollment from its typically enrolled 20,000 full-time students.

L. Michael McCloud, the school's chief academic officer, says that because the college was in planning mode hoping to position itself to answer every possible question, enrollment began 45 days later than usual. Now they’re working to catch up and place those students in classes.

And he expects more students as traditional universities announce their finalized plans.

“More universities are finally coming to grips with making their final decisions on how they want to handle the fall. Students and parents are now at that decision point to make hard choices about what they would like their fall to look like,” McCloud says.

Jerry Pope, Kansas City Kansas Community College's interim vice president of academic affairs, says that as of this week, the school's enrollment is down by 20% from the same time last year. He says a big part of that is that fewer high school students are enrolled.

Unlike concurrent learning high school students at Johnson County whose coursework largely takes place in their own schools, KCKCC high schoolers are often bused in for courses. So far, Pope isn’t sure how that will work out this year.

“These are complicated issues, so we’re a little bit behind in working on it, but we believe we will be able to get it worked out,” Pope says.

He also thinks the school's numbers are down partly because its students just really enjoy the in-person model. “It seems that discipline of having to come to class at certain times — our students seem to enjoy that discipline and appreciate that discipline,” Pope says.

All three community colleges have received funding from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), distributing it to their students directly, using it to provide cell phone hotspots and laptops to those without and upgrading technology to improve the online-learning experiences of their students.

Each also says it’s well-staffed, though JCCC is concerned that with the number of students who are waiting out the pandemic at home rather than returning to other universities, they might be in a pinch soon with upper division courses like religious studies or certain art courses.

“For students who’ve already passed that sophomore threshold, we do have some coursework that will meet their needs and will transfer back to their institution. However, you start to get into specialty faculty that universities tend to have more of because of their broad research budget,” McCloud says.

He says the greatest opportunity for community colleges during this difficult time is showcasing their value to the area they serve. He thinks people often have a stunted idea of what a community college offers.

McCloud says community colleges are economic drivers and each one in the metro supports the entire Kansas City community.

“We want to make sure everybody knows we’re here for them educationally,” he says, “but also as a place for us to engage in broad-based, constructive social conversation for us to continue to try and grow hearts and minds, grow knowledge, help students to see their place in the world even during the pandemic.”

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Anne Kniggendorf is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, whose work has appeared in local media outlets as well as in the Smithsonian Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, and several literary reviews, including two as far away as India and Scotland.