March 2020
Steve Lyons

The onset of COVID-19 has led private colleges across Minnesota to send most students home and their faculty to shift to teaching online. With all that’s in turmoil, however, these institutions remain as focused as always on how they can best meet student needs.

The College of St. Scholastica is one of the first private colleges to return to classes with distance learning. As of Monday March 23, St. Scholastica had all 860 of its courses online and student services had gone virtual as well.

“Each area of the College has come up with plans and solutions to make this change work for students. For example, our mental health counselors are utilizing tele-counseling for sessions,” said Steve Lyons, Vice President for Student Affairs, The College of St. Scholastica. “We have an emphasis on keeping students connected and engaged which extends to campus clubs and organizations continuing to meet, and even exercise classes being provided online.”

All 17 of the Council’s member institutions will be doing the same in the coming weeks, as extended spring breaks come to a close. Some are already committed to remote learning for the rest of the school year while others have said they will evaluate later in the spring whether a return to campus could be possible. (For the latest on COVID-19 planning from all of our colleges, head to our other article.)

For students at Carleton College, the start-up of online courses on April 6 will be the beginning of spring term, which runs into June. As at all private colleges in Minnesota, most students have gone home, while a smaller number remain on campus; many of them are international students for whom travel wouldn’t have been safe. Faculty, meanwhile, are focused on how to prepare for teaching courses online for the first time.

Steve Poskanzer

“This is not going to be a permanent set of circumstances, but it is a temporary moment in our country and the world where we need to step up and put public health and preventing the spread of a virus ahead of some of the things we might most want to do. And we’re going to do that here,” said Steve Poskanzer, president, Carleton College.

“Carleton and other great liberal arts college in Minnesota are really all about the bonds that tie people together. And those bonds are helped by but are not entirely dependent upon proximity,” he said. “So we are going to tap some of the good reservoirs of affection for one another and humor and goodwill and can-do spirit and we’re going to get through it together.”

Education changes

For many private colleges, distance learning was not part of how faculty taught and students learned. Classes are usually taught in classrooms, most of which have fewer than 20 students. At Gustavus Adolphus College, no classes were more than 25 percent online, noted Provost Brenda Kelly. But along with preparing for how to tackle the huge task of moving to online learning, they are always keeping the focus on their students.

Brenda Kelly

“What I have so valued about our faculty response to this turbulent situation is immediately, when we made the college decision to go online . . . our faculty whole heartedly reached out to their advisees and with caring and compassionate emails made sure they were safe, made sure they knew their faculty advisor was still there for them,” Kelly said. “The way our faculty are reaching out to their students — to make sure that their students are okay, that their families are okay, that the students have the resources they need to make online learning successful — has really been phenomenal.”

Building strong faculty-student relationships is a hallmark of a private college education — it is what enriches students’ experiences, driving strong outcomes and preparing students for their post-graduation lives. Colleges and faculty are planning for how to continue to deepen those bonds. “I am really close to my mom and my kids and I don’t see them every day,” Poskanzer said. “So I talk to them on the phone, we use Skype and FaceTime, we use technology to stay connected with people. And this is one of those things we’re going to learn to be even better at.”

At Gustavus, as faculty have prepared for online courses to begin on March 30, college staff have been sharing resources and meeting with departments to support faculty in making the change. Faculty have reached out to students about the technical capacities in their homes, even how many people may be likely to be doing remote work there at the same time, Kelly said. They’re aware that students aren’t guaranteed to have stable internet connections, so that’s impacting course planning with an emphasis on asynchronous learning, when students and faculty are not required to all be doing the same thing at the same time. But she noted that there are many ways that technology can still be used to help students stay connected and exchange ideas, from Instagram accounts for a course to small group chats.

St. Scholastica is one of the private colleges that has more experience with distance learning, with many professors having taught an online course before COVID-19, Lyons said. He said that this internal expertise was tapped with the move to all online for the rest of the term, with more than 30 faculty members volunteering to provide 1:1 consultations to assist their peers.

Whether this is completely new to a college or not, faculty are preparing for how to provide the very best learning experience they can, sources said. And along with sharing knowledge, professors will be working to ensure ideas are exchanged around the virtual classroom.

For how students learn and professors teach, a lot is changing. Kelly said it is important to acknowledge that this is not what anyone signed up for; we all need to reset expectations and move away from thinking about what the class would have been like and see how we can make it work differently from afar. That point came through in a video Poskanzer shared that was posted by one of Carleton’s professors, Julia Strand, for students in her upcoming Sensation and Perception course. Accompanied by eyeballs, ears and even a dismembered hand, given her subject matter, Strand acknowledges that it this is all new and uncomfortable.

“This class is definitely going to be different than if I were teaching it in person. But I think if we work together we can still make it great,” Strand, a Psychology professor, says to her students in the video. “There are going to be hiccups, stuff is going to go wrong. But I think it is going to work well because we’re smart and motivated and we want it to work well.”

While it is a turbulent time for college teaching, good is already coming from it, Kelly noted, as faculty step up to try out new ways of teaching that they never would have otherwise tried. “There is a lot of creativity that is being generated through this crisis,” she said.

Supporting students

Supporting students outside of classrooms will also remain a priority at private colleges. Resources like writing centers, academic advising and career centers will be accessed online. At St. Scholastica, Lyons mentioned peer coaching services and supplemental instruction available through academic support. And when it comes to providing broader student supports, he shared how the college’s student activities coordinator and dean of students are providing daily videos for students to view that provide updates and encouragement.

Keeping students connected will be important, Poskanzer said. “There’s going to be unbounded creativity – virtual dinner parties and virtual movie watching, people are already doing that together,” he said. “We are going to have all kinds of conversations, activities; we’re only limited by how creative we can be.”

Spiritual support will be important too. “We also prioritize spiritual wellbeing, and our Campus Ministry and Mission Integration teams provide this through virtual programs, prayer and individual support,” Lyons said.

With so much changing, students should remain connected to faculty, staff and friends, Lyons said. “The distancing we need to do is physical, but we can be very socially and academically engaged virtually, and we need to embrace that now.”

For families that suddenly have college students back at home, Lyons has advice for them too. And it starts with patience.

“This is an unexpected and hard transition to make,” Lyons said. “Students are used to their own schedule, their own space, and are used to making their own decisions. So good communication adult-to-adult is necessary.”

By John Manning