Most everyone recalls last spring when both Browning and Heart Butte high schools decided to conduct outdoor graduation ceremonies in response the COVID-19 orders put in place by Blackfeet Incident Command. Likewise, Blackfeet Community College (BCC) shifted its late spring semester in-person instruction to remote options, and BCC also conducted its graduation ceremonies on the lawn outside the Beaver Painted Lodge while the audience viewed the proceedings via a Jumbotron video screen.
“We saw the reality of the situation last spring when we unexpectedly went online,” BCC President Karla Bird said. “It was super stressful and challenging for everyone, but everyone did what they had to do. Our instructors went online, but I was really worried about graduation.”
While that situation was demanding, this coming fall shows no indication that things will have changed for the better.
“Now, we probably have no choice but to go online again, which will probably be challenging, but it will also expand our ability to offer classes in ways we’ve never tried, and maybe to populations we’ve not served before,” Bird remarked.
The BCC President said the college will be helped by funding from the CARES Act, which is providing five different funding programs, as well as private donations from the American Indian College Fund.
The U.S. Department of Education gave BCC a bit more than $133,000 in Student Emergency Aid which was distributed to all BCC students whether they were eligible for Pell Grants or not. While the money is directed toward COVID-19-related expenses, that can include things like food, bills and similar items, providing direct assistance when and where it is needed most.
The remaining funds will be budgeted for IT infrastructure (higher speed internet, online classroom platform, classroom video conferencing equipment, laptops, hotspots, etc.), professional development, PPE supplies, emergency student aid, payroll for emergency administrative leave, student internet payments, tuition scholarships, reimbursement for expenses occurred, lost revenue from travel expenses, BCC Grill and the BCC bookstore.
Bird says she wants to be transparent about the grants as they will allow BCC to build its IT infrastructure as well as providing students the equipment they will need to receive that instruction. This includes making sure all faculty and students have laptop computers so everyone can use the internet.
The crew at BCC is still working on ideas to make distance learning not so dry and boring, so some of the money is going toward professional development so the instructors know what’s available for student success on a virtual platform.
“We decided to just plow ahead with online learning, so that’s the goal with the funding,” Bird said. “It isn’t the ideal, but it’s what we need to do in a crisis.”
Many classes, like nursing, have lab components, Bird said, so another goal is to have some virtual simulation labs, but there will still be a need for hands-on experience; thus the notion of hybrid learning is being explored.
Given the reality, Bird is encouraged by the possibilities an emergency has created. “Now it’s more of an opportunity to explore online learning,” she said, noting that younger students often come into the situation already knowing better than their elders how to easily navigate and utilize online services.
“It’s a benefit to the community for people to access education for an Associate’s degree, and to make it affordable because in this crisis people got laid off, and BCC understands the community is going through hardships,” Bird said. “We realized that laptops could be a barrier, so we’re purchasing 500 laptops so we can help to remove all the barriers.”
For the fall semester 2020, all first-year students will have 100% of their tuition waived while all other prospective and returning students will enjoy a 50% reduction in tuition rates. And that reduction applies no matter how many or few class hours one signs up for.
“This should help the community keep busy at home because we must adapt, and this is our contribution,” Dr. Bird concluded.