In addition to holding limited in-person graduation ceremonies this spring, Northeast State Community College is planning to “return to normal” for the fall 2021 semester, the college announced.
That doesn’t mean what it might sound like. On Tuesday, asked to define “normal,” Northeast State President Bethany Bullock simply added an adjective: “the new normal.”
She said that means an operating style shaped not just by the logistical challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, but by learning innovations and cultural shifts that have happened at Northeast State over the past year.
It’s also a normal that’s still shifting a lot, she said, and has forced the school to become more flexible in response.
“... You’re supposed to have all the answers,” Bullock said of her position leading the school. “You’re supposed to know what’s around the corner, and you don’t.”
The school announced last week that students will be able to attend its graduation and academic honors ceremonies in person, but they’ll still be required to wear masks and social distance, while friends and family members will need to participate remotely, via livestreams.
Northeast State’s vice president for academic affairs, Connie Marshall, said the college will also significantly reopen this fall, when it will offer more than 50% of classes in person, alongside a mix of hybrid and online learning options.
Bullock said that masks, social distancing and other pandemic safety protocols could still be in place for in-person fall classes, and all of those plans could change depending on the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Tennessee Department of Health.
But if vaccination rates continue rising and cases fall, she said, she’s hoping the school will ease into more and more in-person course options over the semester.
“We’re calling this the ‘fall back into your fall’ routine,” she said.
What won’t happen is a complete shift to in-person classes.
For one thing, Bullock said, the school already taught 30% of its classes online before the pandemic. And she said that a lot of Northeast State students have realized over the past year that remote learning suits them —particularly those who are single parents or working, she said.
“They love the online options,” Bullock said. “So we’re keeping some of that. We’re trying to learn from the good lessons of those interactive classroom environments. Why do in the classroom what you can do online?”
But she said that surveys among both students and staff have made it clear that there’s also a large appetite for in-person classes. And the school’s sudden, heavy reliance on online learning during the pandemic has prompted some soul searching among faculty about how to improve in-person teaching.
“We’ve learned a lot of really good stuff by being online. How do we create learning spaces, working spaces that we all want to return to?” Bullock said. “Like, let’s make them fun, interactive, engaging.”
And flexible. Over and over in the past year, Bullock said, teachers have moved between in-person and remote teaching methods to reach students in whatever mode worked best for them. That won’t change this fall, she said, adding that students also seem keener to explore different learning platforms for themselves.
“I think students have become very savvy consumers of their higher education, which is a good thing,” she said. “So now, students know how they learn best.”
firstname.lastname@example.org | 276-645-2511 | Twitter: @swadely