Piedmont Virginia Community College students will return to campus this fall as school officials work to make the semester something closer to normal.
PVCC officials say they expect close to 70% of classes will be in person, with a small increase in the number of online courses being offered as compared with pre-pandemic levels. The college has long offered some classes online.
“Fall semester will look much more like a pre-pandemic semester than what we’ve experienced the past year or so,” said Piedmont President Frank Friedman. “We are working under the assumption that the vaccination program will continue to roll out successfully and that by June or July at the latest, every person who wants to get a COVID vaccination will be able to do so.”
Friedman said he expects to see an increase in the number of faculty shifting their classes online after student reviews indicated they liked the option and that it did not negatively impact their learning.
The school normally offers about a quarter of its classes online, especially evening courses. During the pandemic, only about 15% of classes have been in person, mostly courses that had a lab component or practical courses that needed in-person instruction.
“For the last decade, we’ve had about 25% of our classes online to meet the needs of students, and it will increase a little bit in the fall, so about 30% or so will be online,” he said. “During the pandemic, some faculty who had never taught online before had to teach that way and realized it worked. I think we’re going to see some of our faculty choose to go online, not due to COVID, but to help students.”
School officials said the summer semester will be mostly online, but noted that online classes were the pre-pandemic norm for summers at Piedmont.
“Summer semester, even in pre-pandemic days, has consisted largely of online classes due to the schedules of our students,” Friedman said. “So many of them are working full time during the summer that it’s much more convenient for them to take the online classes so they can fit class around their schedules. For summer, we’ll be primarily online with on-campus classes when they are necessary due to labs or the nature of the material, where the student just has to be in person.”
PVCC will require students to continue wearing face coverings while on campus, indoors and outdoors.
“If you’re outside on campus, you could be with a group of people, so we don’t really distinguish,” Friedman said. “At this time, we plan to require masks both outdoors and indoors in the fall, pending any new recommendation from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the [Virginia Department of Health]. If they determine that masks are no longer needed, we’ll discontinue it.”
Although masks will be mandated, the school will not enforce social distancing inside classrooms. The school’s classrooms just aren’t big enough to allow for the distance required, officials said.
They believe the combination of vaccinations and mask wearing, which meets with CDC recommendations, should be sufficient.
This fall, PVCC also will bring back campus activities such as art galleries and expositions, fine arts performances and student plays, choirs and other activities.
“We see fall semester much as a return to pre-pandemic days and we plan to ramp up all of our activities on campus,” Friedman said. “One of our priorities is to re-engage our students. In the pre-pandemic days, we had 40 or 50 active student clubs and hundreds, if not thousands, of students engaged in clubs. We had a very active student government association and social events. This past year, we could pretty much do none of that.”
Friedman said the school had made a concerted effort during the past decade to provide a college atmosphere that brings students and faculty together. That collegiate milieu is not always present at commuter-oriented, community colleges.
“We worked very hard to be more than just a commuter school where people drive in, go to class and go home. We want college to be a full collegiate experience, even at a commuter college like us,” Friedman said.
Friedman said the effort was paying off.
“Students were spending time on campus and time with each other. Our student body is very diverse and it’s great for them to interact with people from other backgrounds and other cultures,” he said. “The more students hang out on campus, the more they also interact with their faculty. We made great strides in that but due to the pandemic, we lost that momentum.”
PVCC staff also will return to campus this fall. As of Aug. 2, school services — from counseling and advising to financial aid — will be available in person. That includes study labs and tutoring. The difference for fall term, Friedman said, is that many of those services will also still be available online.
“That’s one of the things that we learned from the pandemic. For some of our students, having those services online is a great help and a great convenience,” he said. “We’ll have most of our services both in person and online. Some staff will work online from home while others will be in office.”
The school also is trying to find ways to help the community recover from COVID-19 and is developing a financial aid program to assist those who lost jobs during the pandemic. Exactly how the program will work and how it will be funded are matters being ironed out.
“There are thousands of people in Central Virginia who have lost their jobs, and many of those jobs are not coming back,” Friedman said. “We don’t want those who lost their jobs to just rely on unemployment benefits and federal stipends. They are only good for the short term. When they run out, you have nothing.”
Friedman said officials take seriously what they see as PVCC’s role of helping people get training for new careers.
“The problem is those same people who need the education so much are the ones struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table. They don’t have money for education,” he said.
The school is looking at using state, federal and school money to help fund the program.
“Our goal is that, if a student is from low or moderate income and enrolls in the fall semester, we are going to find financial aid for them to cover 100% of tuition and fees, making enrollment basically no cost,” Friedman said. “We want to help our communities recover from the pandemic and give a helping hand to people who were hurt most by COVID-19.”