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Driving Digital Engagement & Reopening Safely for Community Colleges

By May 26, 2020


Leading Through Change

San Mateo County Community College District’s Approach to Navigating Remote Learning and Reopening their Campuses

Community colleges are at the forefront of driving social mobility across the country. They enroll nearly half of all learners in the U.S., including substantial numbers of minority, low-income and first generation students. With the price of college steadily increasing, community colleges also provide an affordable pathway to a degree. Recent trends show that as the coronavirus pandemic forces universities to move classes online, a small but growing number of university students are switching to community colleges. Community colleges are also likely to serve as critical centers for reskilling or upskilling, especially for those who have lost their jobs in the current climate.

Community colleges like the San Mateo County Community College District (SMCCCD)  serve as the cornerstone of cities and towns across the country, providing equitable access to high quality education for a diverse group of lifelong learners. We recently reached out to SMCCCD Chief Technology Officer Daman Grewal to learn how he is driving a digital transformation strategy, reimagining learning environments, and approaching reopening plans for the more than 25,000 students the district serves each day.

1. As the CTO of a three-campus district, how have you been able to quickly pivot your digital strategy to support SMCCCD faculty and staff during this time?

In March, we heard that our campuses would be closing due to COVID-19 and that we wouldn’t have any in-person classes and no staff on campus. We gathered an Information Technology Services task force to see what was needed for some of our HR, Payroll, and Finance staff to work remotely. We rented 100 laptops and were able to use what we had in our three libraries. We distributed close to 220 laptops to our staff and faculty using an online scheduling method so we could maintain social distancing and maintain safety protocols. Plus, we configured these laptops with remote access for users. A handful of district staff also wanted access to their office desktop so we enabled virtual desktop capabilities over VPN as needed. 

2. What steps did SMCCCD take to enable remote learning for students across the district?

We sent out a survey to students asking who needed a Chromebook to study remotely. We got over 350 responses. The following week, we distributed Chromebooks, calculators, and hotspots to students in need of technology. We did this in a drive-thru style where students would drive up to the campuses, meet a greeter, show their ID card, and follow the signs to the pick-up location for a Chromebook and other technology. We did this a couple of times over a two-week period. There were students who couldn’t come to one of our campuses so we drove to Redwood City Center and distributed more technology to students there. We also mailed laptops and Chromebooks to students who couldn’t leave their homes.   

SMCCD distributed Chromebooks to students in need of technology

SMCCCD distributed Chromebooks, calculators, and hotspots to students in need of technology.

Students also have access to a hotline to call if they’re having difficulties with the technology or if they are looking to connect with a counselor. We also established landing pages with resources for students including steps to prepare for online learning and an information hub.

3. SMCCCD serves a diverse student population in the Bay Area, one of the most costly places to live in the U.S. How was the district able to support students facing food or housing insecurity during this crisis? 

SMCCD partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank

SMCCCD partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank to support community members in need of food assistance.

We teamed up with Second Harvest Food Bank to provide food assistance to students, families, and others living in the community thanks to Vice Chancellor Tom Bauer. We had 300 families looking for food assistance, so we were glad to partner with this local organization to scale our support and help those in need. We have served over 4,000 families since our food drive began on April 3rd. We have delivered close to 200,000 pounds of food. We usually start around 11am but we have cars lined up starting at 7am. This is a volunteer-run program helping Bay Area families in dire need. 

4. What advice do you have for community colleges that are navigating online learning for the first time?

Produce consistent and functional web content to support a fully online modality. We centralized production of new website content at the district level to align with emergency operations and policy group directives, thanks to our Interim Director of Web Services Chris Smith. We created key websites: a COVID-19 hub, working remotely for employees, instructional continuity for faculty, and a virtual campus for students. The student website addresses core issues remote students face such as “where are my class meetings?”, “how do I access assignments?”, and “how can I book an appointment with a counselor?” A task force involving IT, instruction, public information, and faculty has set a strategic goal to update these platforms to become long term, entrenched, support websites even after the emergency phase comes to a close. 

Provide frequent training. It is very important to balance short-term needs vs long-term goals so that software is implemented in the right way – secure, accessible, and with limited technical depth. We worked with the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at Skyline College to provide daily training and IT office hours for staff and faculty. To better facilitate 1:1 support, IT enabled faculty and staff to book 15-minute Zoom meetings with a web services representative. For immediate instructional needs of new software, district-wide “open labs” were organized by IT and CTTL (Centers for Transformative Teaching and Learning). In these Zoom meetings, faculty and staff shared ideas and solutions with each other, with moderation and technical support provided by IT. We also have been using Trailhead for admins to learn more about Salesforce and expand their knowledge of Education Cloud.  

5. How do you see Education Cloud helping SMCCCD reopen safely and evolve over time?

Campus leaders are under immense pressure to develop an incident command structure, an effective surveillance system, and partnerships with local public health and health care organizations for a safe reopening of our campuses. Resumption of campus activities will be slow and phased in based on local public health conditions and direction from the state as well as our capacity to open. Returning to an active on-campus environment will depend upon health screening questionnaires, contact tracing and educating our community. We see playing a big role in helping the district reopen safely — from capturing the data we need to make reopening decisions to tracking employee wellness. Plans or dialogue for reopening must exist to reassure faculty, staff and students that their health and safety are paramount to the institution. 

We plan to do a phased return by bringing back 20% employees in a 2-3 week staggering period and staggering shifts by avoiding too many people at the same time. Regarding instruction, implementation of a hybrid model for teaching and learning, limiting the number of students for in-person classes, and close monitoring plus tracking of in-person attendance & seating arrangements will be key. A big thanks to Karrie Mitchell for all the diligent planning behind the scenes to run such a large operation smoothly. 

To learn more about how education institutions are enabling remote learning and thinking about a safe return to campus, register for Higher Ed Summit Virtual on June 9.