In the midst of a pandemic, innovation still drives higher education

by Sarah Armstrong Tucker, Chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and Community and Technical College System

West Virginia’s higher education institutions are powerful engines of innovation. Faculty and students are constantly exploring, discovering, and solving some of the most pressing problems facing society today. They challenge each other to advance in their studies and careers. They push for change and new ideas. In normal times, this work across our colleges and universities is formidable. But since March, our ability to continue that work became even more challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic began to change the way we live – and the way we learn.

Early on in this crisis, our state’s public higher education institutions began working with one another as a truly synchronous team. From the highest levels of leadership, they came together – and still do today – to share their own best practices with one another, ask each other questions, and learn some tough lessons together along the way. The result has been a truly creative, nimble response to an unprecedented pandemic, and an inspiring dedication to the communities we serve.

Beginning with extension of spring break, our faculty and staff worked hard to pivot to non-face-to-face classes by early April, and our students adapted quickly to that change as well. We have heard from students about this transition, with some facing challenges with connectivity and technical issues, and others really praising their teachers for making this transition as smooth as possible. At the statewide level, we understand the challenges associated with this swift change – and have worked together with our schools to help address them leading into the fall.

We have held professional development webinars with faculty regarding online teaching, with nearly 700 registrants participating, and worked with institutions on refining course scheduling for greater efficiencies. For our students, we held numerous webinars regarding changes to financial aid programs, college admissions, and ACT and SAT test preparation. We have provided mental health resources. And for everyone’s protection, we have coordinated with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and National Guard to help campuses sanitize, access protective equipment, and prepare for the safest possible return.

Our goal has been to support students and campuses in the strongest possible way, but let me be clear: West Virginia’s colleges and universities have risen steadily to this statewide challenge on their own in remarkable and inspiring ways.

In fact, when our frontline healthcare providers faced a shortage of personal protective equipment early in this crisis, our two- and four-year institutions – even though their doors were essentially otherwise closed – began using their expertise and 3D printing equipment to manufacture face masks and shields for our medical community in coordination with the National Guard. And, as part of Governor Jim Justice’s Kids Connect initiative to provide broadband access to K-12 students statewide, 39 hotspot sites at public higher education institutions are helping bridge the homework gap this fall.

As our institutions have looked out for their communities, they also have always been squarely focused on the health and safety of their students and staff. In preparation for the fall semester, the safeguards they have put in place are inventive and comprehensive. From transportable plexiglass shields, to masks, physical distancing and hybrid courses, students are returning to their studies in varying ways – but always with their safety as the foremost priority.

Thanks to Governor Justice’s commitment to provide $2.5 million for COVID-19 testing of all college students and staff, our institutions have also worked quickly and creatively to ensure those returning are tested and healthy. We know these tests reflect a single point in time, and we know personal responsibility among our students will be absolutely critical, but this thorough testing gives those within and around our campus communities greater peace of mind at the onset of an uncertain new semester.

Just like the rest of our state, higher education’s response to COVID-19 changes nearly every day, sometimes multiple times a day. But with the collaboration and innovation we have seen over the past several months, I am optimistic in our ability to continue helping students achieve their college and career dreams, and it is perhaps more important than ever before that we do so. We need them to keep studying, keep learning, and keep training. We need our students to succeed. Our future, in so many ways, depends on them.