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A Letter to College Administrators – Considerations for Virtual Learning

A letter from Kimmy Cacciato, a student advisor to Ithaka S+R's Holistic Metrics of Student Success project

September 23, 2020

This blog post also appears on the Ithaka S+R website.

Dear College Administrators,

As a senior I thought I had it all figured out. But then COVID-19 hit, and the game changed. As we all experienced, there is a lot to learn about how to navigate this new world. For me, virtual learning brought new challenges that required me to seek supports that I hadn’t previously needed, including disability services for audio accommodations and funding for food and housing insecurities. I also needed to shift my perspective to fit the new situation, and this meant changing both my schedule and my priorities to put work before school. In reflecting on the initial adjustment period that took place during Spring 2020, I gained several insights about myself, my college, and my college’s perspectives about me. If college administrators wish to support their students during this intense and uncertain time, it is critical that you, and the faculty and staff at your institution, take a step back and view students holistically and consider the new normal that many of us are facing.

In Spring 2020 I was taking a full course-load, working 3 jobs (substitute teaching at a local high school and working in two on-campus offices), involved in leadership positions in multiple organizations, serving as a student-advisor on a research project for Ithaka S+R, and trying to maintain my social life. I need to carefully budget my schedule each semester to ensure that I can work enough to pay for my bills and buy groceries for myself while also attending classes full-time and engaging in the “college experience.” But the drastic changes that occurred during Spring 2020 completely disrupted my schedule, impacting my ability to provide for my basic needs.

When The College of New Jersey switched to an online format and the high school I was working at also switched to virtual learning indefinitely, I found myself overwhelmed and uncertain about what would happen. How would I pay my bills? Would I be able to find a new job that wouldn’t interfere with my synchronous online class schedule? Would everything abruptly change again? With these questions wildly swirling in my mind, I reached out to my professors, not knowing whether we would return that semester, to tell them that I might not be able to attend the synchronous, live class sessions that our school required. One didn’t understand at first why the pandemic would affect my schedule. He didn’t realize my main source of income came from off-campus work and, with employment opportunities slim, I might need to take a temporary job that would conflict with my current class schedule. When, as I predicted, I did need to take a new job as an essential worker that conflicted with my classes, thankfully all of my professors were accommodating in the end.

While all of this happened quickly in the spring in a way that none of us could have expected, there are still a lot of unknowns for this fall as well. Students may face uncertainties about employment, child care, food security, housing, and how they will meet their basic needs. As circumstances change for students who signed up for fall classes before COVID-19 or if their institutions switch their mode of learning mid-semester in response to the pandemic, it may not be feasible to participate synchronously in classes according to the proposed schedule while providing for their basic needs.

While inequities have always existed in higher education, student concerns about basic needs have been greatly accentuated this year. Over the summer Sara Goldrick-Rab and colleagues at the Hope Center found that “68% of parenting students were housing insecure in the previous year, compared to 42% of students were housing insecure in the previous year” due to issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. All students this fall will be facing a unique set of challenges that are not only different from other students but also different as compared to those faced by each student in previous years. Before the pandemic, I had learned how to navigate in-person classes and be successful as a hard-of-hearing student, however, virtual learning created a new set of challenges that I needed to quickly adapt to. The lack of visual cues (i.e. lip reading and non-verbal cues) and quality of sound through virtual lessons made it difficult for me to fully access my courses. So, for the first time, in spring of my senior year, I requested and received disability accommodations for captioning services. Returning to my institution this fall for graduate coursework, I am expecting to face new challenges and I know that students and faculty will need to work together to successfully adapt to what this term has in store for us.

These are considerations I urge you to think about and act on. You can make a difference for students by taking some important steps:

  • Encourage faculty to ask more about their students. This could be done through a simple intake survey let faculty know where their students are at--their schedules, responsibilities outside of class, concerns they have regarding the course schedule, or other challenges they are facing.
  • Trust us when we share our stories. Hearing from students on their actual experiences should form the basis for how you support them this fall. It can be difficult for students to ask for help or advocate for their needs, and it vital that we feel trusted and heard, and not doubted.
  • Enlist your faculty to share information about campus resources. Faculty have the potential to be a great mediator between college support services and students’ access to those services. Administrators need to make sure that their faculty are aware of the resources on offer so that they can share out the information in a timely manner to students in need. Since my college began remote-only learning, the emails I received from faculty —on the COVID-19 student emergency relief fund, essential worker employment opportunities, virtual mental health services, and career center workshops on how to navigate internship and full-time job searches during this virtual time—provided the most direct link to campus services.
  • Be flexible. In the spring we saw that the pandemic affected students’ lives in many ways. For some, their work schedules changed because of shutdowns, others lost their jobs, while student parents had to take on added responsibilities as schools and daycares closed. While these changes may not be as abrupt this fall, some students may still not be able to fit into the synchronous schedule that they originally signed up for. Students may need faculty members to be accommodating in simple and practical ways when they miss class because of a schedule change, drop a course unexpectedly, or request extensions on assignments.

For many students, how they define “success” has shifted in light of the pandemic to more short-term goals as we try to navigate this new world that changes with each week. Clearly, no one expected or was prepared for global shut-downs in Spring 2020. But, given the time we’ve all had to reflect on the experiences of the spring and the lessons learned from adjusting quickly, this fall has potential to be more successful. Yet, as colleges will surely need to make adjustments throughout the academic year, remember too that your students will face challenges they might not yet be anticipating. Remind your faculty that our lives outside their classrooms might present roadblocks. Encourage them to ask us how we are doing throughout the semester. And support them in their efforts to support their students.


A hopeful student

Kimmy Cacciato graduated from The College of New Jersey with a major in Deaf/Hard of Hearing Education - Mathematics Teaching. This fall, she is returning to TCNJ to pursue an MAT in Deaf/Hard of Hearing Education. She is currently serving as a student advisor to Ithaka S+R's Holistic Metrics of Student Success project.

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