COVID Causes Changes for Schools COVID Causes Changes for Schools

Day two of the annual event brought educators and lawmakers together to focus on higher education.

RICHMOND- When the pandemic hit Virginia, most colleges were right in the middle of the 2019-2020 spring semester. With students preparing to take final exams and graduation ceremonies right around the corner, school officials had to create a plan of action fast. Because of this, several schools switched to online learning in order to keep their students and staff safe.

And while some schools are slowly reintroducing in-person classes, it’s still not completely safe to allow students back on campus. So, for the time being, most Virginia universities are operating on a hybrid method of learning, with most classes being done online. But this has worsened a problem that many parts of Virginia were already facing.

Many students either can’t afford or lack access to a reliable internet connection. And without that, passing classes online is next to impossible. And Virginia’s rural areas have been hit the hardest. Quentin Johnson, the president of Southside Virginia Community College, has already seen the effects on his own campus.

“The Southside of Virginia is in what we call the horseshoe. It’s very low-income service area,” said Johnson. Because of this, their access to internet is incredibly low. The city of Brunswick, where an SVCC campus is located, has a broadband coverage of 26.4%, which is one of the lowest in the state.

On the second day of Virginia’s Educational Summit, elected officials and university officials sat down to discuss how they were going to fix this problem before the next General Assembly session in two months.

READ MORE: What’s the Right Answer? Lawmakers, Educators Consider Education’s Future in Virginia

Closing the Digital Divide

On a state level, Virginia actually ranks decently in terms of internet access. According to data from BroadbandNow, the Commonwealth ranks 15th nationally, with 83.4% of the state provided reliable broadband connections. However, there are certain pockets of Virginia that have way less access than others. And even before COVID-19, these areas were left severely disenfranchised because of it. So much of our world takes place online that the Internet is no longer a luxury- it’s a necessity, especially in the age of COVID-19.

“Not having broadband access brought a particularly challenging set of problems to us,” said Johnson. “Ninety percent of our student population is on financial aid. The majority of them are eligible for Pell grants.”

Once the pandemic hit SVCC, they knew they were in trouble. Since the campus spreads across 10 rural counties, minimal internet access was already a problem. The pandemic made the problem worse. In March, they had no other choice but to mail paper copies of assignments to students.

To combat the issue, SVCC put together a COVID-19 team that would try to solve some of these issues.

“We had to figure out how to help a population of students who didn’t have internet and broadband, not eating and could not pay rent,” said Johnson. “How do we get them their coursework and engage them?” So far, the school has identified many of the students who don’t have access to internet. They’ve asked their faculty and staff to work with these students one on one. They’ve also expanded their wifi into the parking lots on the Alberta and Keysville campuses.

Other schools, like James Madison University, adopted a pass/fail grading system for the spring semester. This way, students who were struggling in their classes wouldn’t do too much damage to their GPAs during the pandemic.

Making College More Affordable

The lack of internet connection is not the only problem that COVID-19 worsened. Because of the economic recession, the cost of attending school has become less affordable than ever. Many university officials worry that fewer students are likely to enroll in the upcoming semesters. JMU has already seen a 1.3% drop in enrollments, mostly from out-of-state students.

“The pandemic hit people who were working two to three jobs that couldn’t make ends meet,” said Johnson.

While some Virginia colleges froze tuition rates over the past few years, college still isn’t affordable to the average Virginian. And the pandemic isn’t helping the matter. According to JMU’s president, Jonathan Alger, their university financial aid requests have skyrocketed since the pandemic started.

“The need for financial aid has gone way up in the pandemic,” said Alger. “This is due to changing family economic circumstance.” Not to mention community colleges like SVCC don’t have student loans as an option for struggling students. Right now, they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to help these students financially.

READ MORE: How much does college cost in Virginia? A lot.

However, Virginia’s college budgets have been completely destroyed. Thanks to COVID-19, many schools had to introduce a long list of new expenses in order to keep their students and staff safe. At JMU, this included more staff members in the Health Center, COVID-19 safety tools and testing materials, quarantine spaces and countless other things. Not to mention, the school is making less money than ever.

“We had to issue significant refunds on tuition and room and board. Our bookstores’ revenue is way down,” said Alger.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with the Dogwood. You can reach her at arianna@couriernewsroom.com