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How one community college is grappling with the pandemic, reckoning on race

How will the fall of 2020 look for students, families and schools as the pandemic reshapes the education landscape? Community colleges, which educate about 40 percent of U.S. undergraduates, were already stretched thin. Now, their enrollment is expected to increase as students and workers change their plans. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how Maryland’s Montgomery College and its students are coping.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now the first in a special series of reports about Rethinking College during COVID.

    Many students, families and, of course, colleges and universities are indeed rethinking about what this fall will be like, as the pandemic continues to dramatically reshape the higher education landscape.

    Our series begins with community colleges, which educate about 40 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. Many were already stretched thin before the pandemic, but surveys indicate enrollment is likely to increase as students and workers shift plans.

    Correspondent Hari Sreenivasan looks at how one community college and its students are coping.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Maryland's Montgomery College, just outside D.C., is eerily quiet these days. During a typical July, the school's three campuses would be bustling with summer school students.

    But like so many colleges and universities around the country, learning here has shifted from classrooms and labs to bedrooms and living rooms.

    Montgomery College is one of the country's most diverse community colleges. It's nestled in a county with pockets of poverty and wealth. About 55,000 students ordinarily attend for accredited degrees and other programs like work force development.

    The school was one of the first in the area to announce it will continue remote learning in the fall with a limited number of small lab classes. It's too early to know how many will attend next year, but the school is already seeing an uptick in interest.

  • DeRionne Pollard:

    If I look at my enrollment for summer, we will probably be about 20 percent up in terms of where we were this time last year.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    DeRionne Pollard is president of the college.

    She says, as the school gears up for increased enrollment, she's staying focused on current students, many of whom were struggling before the pandemic.

  • DeRionne Pollard:

    So, our students oftentimes are hungry. They are taking care of multiple generations at any given time. They're trying to figure out how to get to school.

    Many of them live very fragile lives, and they're oftentimes one paycheck away from disaster.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In March, that disaster struck when businesses began to close.

    Many students and their families lost jobs, and some struggled with the move to online learning. That was the case for 19-year-old graphic design major Kayla Savoy. She says she enjoys creating and learning about art in her classes, but technology issues and distractions at home made it difficult to stay focused on school.

  • Kayla Savoy:

    The Wi-Fi, absolutely atrocious at my house. There's technically five or six of us all living at once. You have a toddler screaming about "Paw Patrol" in the background while your 8:00 a.m. class is going on.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Savoy is paying her own way through school and says she managed to get straight A's last semester. But she's been struggling to find work the last few months, and it's been hard to pay for things like gas and food.

    On top of those concerns, she and many of her classmates have been deeply impacted by recent events surrounding racial inequities.

  • Kayla Savoy:

    I got to this point where I was like, I don't know how I'm going to be able to juggle more than I already have. And then I turn around, and I see more senseless killings of my people.

    And, as a Black woman, I fear for so many people that are important in my life. It becomes just an overwhelming feeling of, what can I do? Can I not study for classes? Can I not go to the store without my life being in danger?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Montgomery College has been trying to help students cope with many of these stresses. The school has distributed more than $3.5 million in emergency aid, money from the federal CARES Act, private donors, established emergency funds, and $400,000 the school saved from canceled end-of-the-year ceremonies.

    Early on, local companies donated laptops, and free food was handed out to students and the surrounding community, where unemployment has jumped up in recent months to nearly 9 percent.

  • DeRionne Pollard:

    Our students, they don't pop in for eight or nine months out of the year, live in a residence hall, and they go back to where they came from. They live here. They work here. They raise families here.

    So, as a result of that, the wealth and health of our community is a direct reflection of the health of our community college, and vice versa. There's a mutuality to that that demands that we rise up in these moments.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Pollard says this moment also requires thoughtful engagement and action by the school and academia in general to address systemic racism.

    During open Zoom forums called Let's Talk, faculty and staff have been facilitating candid conversations.

  • Andrae Brown:

    We're literally watching the murder of people consistently on television over and over and over again. That's not only dehumanizing to the person, but it desensitizes us to what the value of that life is.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And some faculty, like anthropology adjunct Professor Amy Carattini are encouraging students to explore race and ethnicity in new ways.

  • Amy Carattini:

    I think it's just so important to make students feel comfortable to talk about these issues. I think there's a lot of nervousness or fear of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But outside of the classroom, some wonder how well Montgomery College and other community colleges will be able to meet the challenges of these times.

  • Sara Goldrick-Rab:

    Community colleges have been systematically defunded for years, and they were already in a tough situation when it came to resources, when it came to instructional supports, when it came to being ready to serve these large numbers of students.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Temple University's Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of sociology and medicine. She and her colleagues recently released a survey that found nearly three in five college students across the country have experienced basic needs insecurity during the pandemic.

    She says lack of funding can lead to staff shortages and limited course offerings, and the current job market may make it more difficult for students to get across the finish line.

  • Sara Goldrick-Rab:

    These students are at very high risk of going to college for all the right reasons, and leaving because they had very little choice.

    People used to work their way through college in the 1970s and the 1980s. They have always done that. But now work has literally disappeared. This is not a temporary challenge, when these people, if they drop out of college, they're going to struggle for the next 10 to 15 years, at least, to repay the debt that they owe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Montgomery College President Pollard has those issues and others on her plate as she steers the college into what could be a rocky fall.

  • DeRionne Pollard:

    If students do come to us and we know, they will need financial aid.

    We know that the state and even the federal government may not be able to provide as much, because they're trying to raise an economy back up.

    We know that there's a lot of uncertainty. But here's the thing about it. We have been here before. Community colleges have a deep competency in trying to respond to these types of environments.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Fifty-five thousand students, more or less, will log into their online classes on August 31, when the fall semester begins, but the school's campuses will remain quiet for the foreseeable future.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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