Defining a new normal for Madison College in the wake of COVID-19

Morgan Engels

In March of 2020 Madison College administrators were faced with a monumental task unlike anything in the college’s 110-year history: shutting the campus down and moving most classes online. Now, more than a year later, administrators are beginning to look ahead to the post-pandemic future.
A year after shutting the campus down, with the vaccine rolling out, administrators must decide how to return the campus to normal. In doing so, they must also ask themselves what normal will look like.
“[Madison College] has always adapted to local needs and conditions, for example during WWII or during recessions,” says Madison College Provost Turina Bakken. “Some of those shifts were pretty major, but nothing like the total shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Discussions about a COVID-19 response began in January of 2020. Madison College Risk Manager Joshua Cottilier and then Vice President of International Education Geoff Bradshaw began meeting and discussing travel.
Cotillier, who recalls the H7N9 and H5N1 (both commonly referred to as bird flu) and well as the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, described the meetings as preliminary. At the time, the virus had only been detected in the Wuhan Province of China.
“About February we started to realize that this wasn’t going to just be a local thing, this wasn’t going to be a come and go thing like these other strains of virus and that we needed to start having some discussions,” Cotillier recalls.
By March, campus leadership began holding emergency meetings to organize a response to the growing health emergency. The first major decision was to extend spring break by one week. However, by that time administrators knew that they had a much bigger disruption on their hands.
Planning quickly shifted then to going nearly fully remote for the remainder of the spring semester.
“It was very stressful since there was no roadmap before us, but the response from faculty and students was inspirational and a true sign of Madison College resilience and talent,” Bakken says.
On March 16, 2020 the decision was made to close the campus and nine days later Governor Evers would issue his safer at home order.
Between 2009 and 2010 a preliminary plan for how Madison College would adjust to a pandemic was drafted. This was done following the H1N1 pandemic.
“That plan is just an outline because what actually happens, for example we thought at first this would be two weeks; how do you plan for a year?” Cotillier says. “It has definitely expanded on what our initial thought process was.”
The mission of Madison College is to, “provides open access to quality higher education that fosters lifelong learning and success within our communities.” School administration and faculty had to determine how many staff and students could safely be allowed on campus while still succeeding in that mission.
Much of the determination on how classes would be delivered, whether online or in person, was left up to faculty and programs/departments teams. This was done on the principle that they know the curriculum the best and therefore were best suited to decide what best served the students.
In the case of programs such as health and protective services another factor to consider is what accrediting agencies and governing boards will allow. Administrators have been monitoring success data over the last year to ensure that students have the best options that align with their learning styles and needs.
Photography Instructor Ya-Ling Tsai is currently teaching courses in various formats.
Some of her courses are being taught online live, others hybrid (online and in-person) and others in-person.
“I was in panic mode,” Tsai replies when asked how she felt when the campus first shut down.
Tsai worked 12 hours a day during spring break in 2020, learning Blackboard and adapting parts of her classes to a format suited for online learning. For her part of the challenge was figuring out what could be taught online and what needed to be done in person.
“Photography has lots of hands-on components,” Instructor Tsai says. “The majority of students who are in the photography program have expressed that their preferred learning style is face-to-face and hands on.”
While in person, Tsai must follow many precautions to ensure the health and safety of the students and herself. Students are seated in a manner that ensures social distancing and cleaning supplies are available to sanitize work areas and equipment. At all times she and the students wear masks.
During the fall semester, Tsai was screened out for two weeks after one of her students tested positive. During that time she communicated with COVID screeners regarding her condition. At the start of the spring 2021 semester, Tsai asked all of her students to be transparent about their health. She stressed to them not to come to class if they are experiencing any symptoms. To help her students she makes sure that all course content is posted to Blackboard for students who are forced to miss class due to illness.
Tsai notes that for many students the transition to online learning has been a difficult one, something the students have expressed to her.
“It can be because of their home environment, their job and their resources,” Tsai says. “It is a challenge for students to learn online from home at the same time they are taking care of family members or helping children who are also going to school online.”
The college’s institutional research team, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) and Student Affairs, has been collecting extensive data throughout the pandemic This data has been reviewed collaboratively and has been used to inform changes in both academic and student affairs. Data has been collected on the success, retention, persistence and completion of courses.
According to the data, over the past three terms, course success (a grade of C or better) has held relatively steady. Some program areas have seen a slight decline.
Online course success overall lags slightly behind in-person courses. Hybrid courses have performed very well. Last summer they performed significantly better than in person and since last spring, hybrid course success has increased over 5 percent.
“We can slice and dice that data by gender, race/ethnicity, age, first generation, location and more,” Bakken says. “We overlay that data with our course planning to ensure that course options are informed by the data, and that we can work with Student Affairs to ensure key student support wherever it is needed.”
This data will likely prove critical in what the college’s “new normal” looks like.
Hopes are that Madison College will begin returning to normal this summer. According to Cotillier that is when the college hopes to move into phase two of the four phased reopening plan.
Phase one is described as status quo. This is the current phase Madison College is in.
Cotilier describes phase two as a gradual return to normal. A determination on whether the college can enter this phase will be based on the current situation of the pandemic and public health orders. In phase two more staff and students will be allowed back into the campus to work and learn face-to-face. Under the best-case scenario the college will enter phase three, a larger return of students and faculty, in the fall.
“Maybe spring 2022,” Cotillier says of entering phase four. “Phase four is whatever new normal is.”
There is no clear picture of what Madison College’s new normal will look like. One growing consensus is that the college will see a difference in the amount of online vs in-person learning it offers.
Tsai notes, however, that courses such as art and science courses, do require in-person lab work.
“We have all adjusted to and know it is possible to learn online and take classes without traveling to school,” Tsai says. “Some students might consider taking all online classes to get a degree without leaving home.”
Another change to come will be to the college’s pandemic preparedness plan. When the college returns to normal Cotillier says he will next begin reviewing data that has been collected during the pandemic and use it to draw up a new plan.
While reflecting on the past year Cotillier says, “I think we have found out how malleable we actually are, through COVID; it didn’t break our institution, our employees or our students. It’s been tough, with everything going both COVID and otherwise, like last summer and not being able to do the things we are used to, but I think we have shown how flexible and malleable we really are. We really melded to the situation.”