Stephanie Fleming: Supporting PCC’s Frontline Teaching Troops
“There are no work policies for pandemics,” deadpanned Stephanie Fleming, Dean of Instructional Support for Pasadena City College (PCC). She was speaking, of course, about the abrupt halt to standard college operations in March 2020, due to the unabated spread of the COVID-19 virus. Her role as Dean gave her both a front-row view of the virus-control processes rolling out across campus, and the opportunity to collaborate with Dr.’s Bob Blizinski and Terry Giugni (VP’s respectively of HR and Instruction) on strategies and next steps. She’s learned a lot from her experience assisting with redirecting a highly organized and connected institution and helping it juggle its myriad of obligations and aspirations when faced with what was truly an insurmountable barrier.
Many Perspectives to Consider
At first, like much of the world, all of PCC paused when the volume of both information and misinformation muddled everyone’s capacity to address the advancing health threat. After carefully reviewing all facets of the situation, the leadership team launched the first of many steps in response to the crisis, recognizing the need to craft short-, mid-, and long-term decisions.
Initially, simply getting students out of the classrooms and off-campus was the goal. That was handled pretty quickly, and the physical site went dark just days after the call was made to close it. But the swift switch to remote learning prompted many more questions:
For the school as a whole:
How would the school handle those classes and courses that don’t translate to remote learning? Hands-on labs, courses with lots of field trips, or programs that engage heavily in work-based learning situations suddenly lost those training opportunities.
Even courses that do shift fairly easily to online learning posed problems when the student didn’t have the resources available to connect to them. Could the school help them, if it had the resources available to do so?
For the faculty trying to finish the semester:
As the Dean of Instructional Support, Fleming’s role on the leadership team focused her attention on assisting the faculty to achieve their semester goals despite the COVID-19 concern. The project wasn’t an easy one: most of PCC’s teaching staff relied on years of standard teaching strategies, very few of which transitioned smoothly to an all-digital format.
Further, the ‘digital skill’ level of the overall faculty wasn’t balanced either; for some, the transition was more comfortable than it was for others. However, no matter their skills, all of PCC’s faculty was at a loss for what to do when they suddenly had to move all their curriculum online and, simultaneously, become adept at reaching their students remotely. Fleming was busy sorting who needed what and determining how she could help them.
She set her focus on maintaining as much instruction as possible while prioritizing safety for all.
No Easy Answers
However, Fleming quickly learned that there are no short answers to the questions she and the team were facing. Every decision had subsequent, significant, and sometimes devastating consequences, if not thought through thoroughly.
Individual issues illustrate the depth of the challenge as it existed in March and April 2020:
Some courses typically assigned grades based on hands-on projects, while others relied on technology to determine students’ marks. Without access to the tech or the data, how would students complete their work or professors grade those students?
Some courses simply couldn’t continue from a remote perspective, so they made an early decision to assign those students an incomplete grade, which wouldn’t affect their GPA. This election eliminated the requirement of assigning a merit-based grade, but also hindered the educational careers of students who needed that prerequisite grade to continue in their course of study.
It also raised the issue of the student loan that paid for that course. Would the lender pay for that course again? Would the school absorb those costs for the second go-round? How could the student remain unaffected in this circumstance?
The changes mandated by the transition to online teaching also created havoc with PCC-affiliated contracts and standards. In some cases, the virus interfered with long-standing agreements, and those terms needed review and sometimes revisions in the face of the pandemic. Other COVID-19 related accommodations resulted in violations of teaching and institutional standards, putting the school’s accreditation in jeopardy.
Never far from her mind, though, were the circumstances of PCC students, some of whom were facing potentially college-ending situations.
International students were facing the loss of their F1 visas if they weren’t able to attend classes. That loss would mandate their departure from the country.
Many other students were struggling to find the resources they needed when they had no access to the resources available at the school. Students without technical resources or Internet access at home were unable to remain as students. The pandemic had revealed the cultural divide between those students with assets and those without.
Teamwork to the Rescue
Fleming noted throughout the conversation how the ‘success’ of PCC’s transformation to an all-digital school was the result of the collaboration of its faculty and administration staff. Everyone from the Dean’s office through all the ranks and divisions came together with their talents, skills, and know-how to solve immediate problems and contribute insights that might generate strategic solutions to longer-term concerns.
The Distance Education team was a critical component of the school’s success. Those professionals contributed a variety of resources and efforts to get every teacher and every office online.
Decisions were hammered out in all-in meetings that included faculty, staff, and leadership. Together, they explored each element of every decision for its potential impacts across the campus.
The Professional Development team was also instrumental in getting classes online. They worked tirelessly to implement the ‘Just in Time’ training that the Distance Education department developed in response to the pandemic. That process brought the entire teaching staff onto a single strategy, so courses and learning would be at least consistent if they couldn’t be optimal.
In remarkably short order, PCC was back ‘in business,’ at least to finish the Spring semester.
The work done to get the school online also informed the strategy for PCC’s Summer Session.
Theories developed early on around student support were put to the test, including those that promised hope to learners with sensitive access and capacity issues.
Faculty training shifted from digital competence to ensuring the achievement of as many necessary teaching standards as possible. Grading plans and student supports were put in place, and Fleming assisted the VP of Instruction, VP of Human Resources, Dean of Distance Education, and the Faculty Association to craft parameters for appropriate additional training.
While all teaching staff received sufficient training to remain accredited, some elected to attend an extended course that gave them accreditation for distance teaching as well.
All academic staff also received at least basic training so they could understand what their colleagues were doing.
Summer Session also brought its own set of challenges:
Enrollment was impacted in strange ways. Some classes were almost empty (not surprising), while others filled up quickly and had waiting lists.
Some courses needed not just digital learning but also some semblance of an on-site opportunity, too. The health sciences departments are currently working through possible solutions to allow on-site work but in as safe a manner as possible. Hopefully, those announcements will come soon.
Fall Session is also revealing unexpected nuances to the challenge:
Fleming expects the college will continue building on the faculty’s newly established ‘uniform training’ platform, which lays the foundation for future building opportunities.
That platform is also proving advantageous for more esoteric training beyond getting lessons to students. Fleming is especially enthused about using it to develop a broader base of equity and diversity training, as an example.
Face-to-face teaching opportunities continue to present concerns, but the school continues to consider multiple options to provide as much learning as possible despite needed protections.
These and other concerns, challenges, and opportunities will continue to develop over time, as PCC works to build its ‘new normal’ in this decidedly different world.
Looking back, Fleming is immensely proud of the work being done by PCC and all its teams through this entire adventure. It’s managed to save as much instruction as possible, and to preserve stability across its curricula. She is also immensely grateful to the teaching staff who, admittedly, have born the burden of learning how, adopting, then learning from their new digital teaching practices. She notes that both the faculty association and the district are seeking ways to recognize their effort.
Looking forward, Fleming is accepting the situation as an evolving strategic planning session. Regardless of the solutions in place now, it is almost assured that circumstances will change and that new solutions will be needed tomorrow. She will continue to work with the PCC leadership team to support the school’s professors, so they can accomplish their session goals (as much as possible) while also retaining the joy they experience in their teaching role. As the Dean of Instructional Support, that focus seems to be the best ‘policy’ available when there are no other policies to which to turn.
Get the PULSE in your inbox!