When most of Buffalo State College’s campus closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, classes weren’t the only thing to shift online. Programs offered by the Community Academic Center (CAC) and the Middle Early College High School (MECHS) had to figure out how to move online, as well.
“When my office received the news about Buffalo State moving to distance learning due to COVID-19, we moved very quickly in regard to coming up with a plan and notifying our students,” said Tristin J. Salter, academic coordinator of MECHS. “During the 2019–2020 academic year, there were 11 MECHS seniors taking five courses. We sat the students down as a group, and I explained what the college had decided and allowed students time to process the news, ask questions, and voice their concerns.”
MECHS offers tutoring and support to high school seniors taking a full-time course load on campus, as well as alumni from the program who have transferred to Buffalo State after completing an associate’s degree at SUNY Erie Community College. The CAC works directly with members of the West Side community, offering English language classes, American citizenship classes, and youth programs.
The shift online has been difficult for some involved in the programs, but Buffalo State staff members have worked hard to come up with solutions for participants.
When Salter sat down with the students she works with, she laid out her expectations. These included checking in every day by e-mail, letting her know what their workload was like, and letting her know if they were having any issues in a class. It was important to keep in daily contact, she said.
“These daily e-mails allowed time and space for me to continue to foster relationships with them and keep lines of communication open, so that they were comfortable speaking to me about any challenges they may have been facing,” Salter said.
Additionally, tutors were assigned to students to act as mentors throughout the duration of the semester.
“Tutors were charged with the responsibilities of reaching out to their assigned students at least twice a week and holding virtual tutoring sessions,” Salter said. “They were then to provide me with regular reports of the students’ performance and if there were any concerns.”
Platforms like FaceTime, Zoom, and Blackboard Collaborate quickly became indispensable, Salter said.
“Being intentional and quickly creating a strong outreach plan was critical, and it provided them with a sense of stability and perhaps even a safety net,” she said. “At the end of the day, I believe they knew we were there for them.”
At the CAC, working to make sure participants had access to technology and Wi-Fi was important, said Maureen E. McCarthy, director of the CAC. That can be difficult, as there’s an app for getting access to Wi-Fi hotspots in the city of Buffalo. If the participant isn’t online in the first place, it is difficult to access the app.
“That’s been a big challenge that is further exacerbating educational inequalities right now,” she said.
Despite the challenges, participants enjoyed the face time with the other students and instructors, McCarthy said.
And there have been positives to come out of the change, as well.
“One of the issues that comes up for us a lot is transportation,” McCarthy said. “While there are certain barriers to coordinating remotely, transportation has been much less of an issue.
“There’s a big socialization component for our students that is being met,” she said. “Even for the youth programs. If someone is absent, they get in touch with them, and they're all doing these projects together. I think the need for connection is really strong right now.”
Students involved with MECHS faced a variety of issues before COVID-19 struck. Since the virus hit Western New York, some have lost jobs, struggled to pay rent, and had mental health issues.
“It was extremely important to listen and simply be compassionate to what they were going through,” Salter said. “Each student's story was different, and they faced their own individual challenges. We resolved them the best we could, when we could, and provided support, information, and resources for those challenges too large for us to solve.”
There were setbacks for her students, Salter said. Some became frustrated with the situation, and the high school and college seniors were disappointed about not having a traditional graduation. Overall, however, the students fared well, earning mostly A’s and B’s.
“In the end, I think that they showed tremendous perseverance and dedication,” she said. “They proved they could overcome adversity, a life skill that will certainly stay with them forever.”