MARIETTA, OHIO—In anticipation of increased need during the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington State Community College (WSCC) ramped up its support efforts to ensure student needs are met in the virtual classroom and beyond.
While the stay-at-home mandate in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can be difficult on its own, for students who are struggling with bills, feeding their families, or other stresses, it can be overwhelming. “Many of our students came to college as a means to move them from poverty to prosperity,” explained WSCC’s Vice President of Academic Affairs Sarah Parker-Clever. “When you take an already difficult situation and combine it with our current crisis, it has the potential to keep a student from achieving their goal of graduating and getting a good-paying job.”
Among the institution’s most significant areas of concern for its students are food insecurities, financial strains, mental health crises, and technology issues.
With families suddenly home every day, WSCC has been doing everything they can to ensure students do not have to worry about providing enough food. Kathy Temple-Miller, WSCC’s Dean of Student Success said that nearly one-third of Washington State students struggle with food insecurities. “When you’re already worrying about your food reserves and suddenly your whole family is home all day long, every day. Your supply is going to deplete quickly.”
She explained that only weeks before the coronavirus crisis hit Ohio, the college established a food pantry. “We were fortunate to have our pantry operational at this very critical time,” Temple-Miller acknowledged.
The WSCC food pantry was established with a $2,500 grant from the Marietta Welfare League and was set-up to provide aid for 10 students and their families, however, it quickly grew. Faculty and staff responded with the announcement of the new program and gave an additional $1,000. The pantry was further bolstered by a $500 gift from a student organization, the WSCC Criminal Justice Club. With these additional contributions, and a commitment from the WSCC Foundation for additional funds when needed, Temple-Miller said they should be able to help any student in need.
The added support came at a critical time as Temple-Miller, who is responsible for the management of the newly created pantry, said applications have grown 400-percent over the past two weeks. Admittedly, she expected numbers would spike simply because of the timing of the roll-out of the program. However, applicants
have repeatedly attributed their change in circumstances to the COVID-19 crisis. “Families in rural areas especially are struggling to have to feed their kids now that they are home from school. That’s compounded by the fact that many of them have had their work hours reduced, and in some cases, completely eliminated.”
To apply, WSCC students can simply visit the school’s website and fill out an application. Following a quick review for eligibility, the student is contacted and given instructions on next steps. While campus is officially closed, Temple-Miller, along with her staff from the Center for Student Success, have opened a drive-thru station in the library parking lot one day each week. This allows staff and students to practice social distancing and minimizes foot-traffic in buildings.
The college is also ready when students’ needs go beyond food in the cupboard. The WSCC Foundation established an Emergency Fund several years ago to give students financial assistance in times of crisis. Last year, the Foundation provided more than $11,000 in emergency fund assistance. Through the continued generosity of donors, WSCC is ready to support students as needs arise both during and after the pandemic. “We want to remove barriers that keep students from earning their degrees,” explained Vice President of Institutional Advancement Amanda Herb. “If helping a student by putting gas in their car or paying a utility bill keeps them in school, that’s a way for every dollar to make a big impact in terms of supporting student success.”
While the Foundation doesn’t know exactly how COVID-19 will impact requests for these emergency funds, Herb said they are ready to respond. “Right now many utility companies have suspended late fees and shutoffs, but that won’t last forever. We want our students to know that if they need our help, we are there for them.”
Licensed Therapist Junia Richemond provides another new service offered at WSCC, mental health support. Richemond came to campus in early March and provides free individual therapy for faculty, staff, and students, which has recently increased in value as many campus members are struggling with greater stress.
“This is a very difficult time for people who have mental illness especially,” said Richemond. “But we are also seeing people without underlying mental health issues expressing increased fear, worry, and sadness due to the current situation with COVID-19,” she continued.
While she would normally provide support in a face-to-face fashion, she is now providing those same services via phone and video session in order to maintain social distancing.
Moving to remote classrooms was a hardship for some students, one that the college was prepared to handle. While many students have a computer, issues with connectivity, hardware and software still require IT support.
Terry Rataiczak, WSCC’s Chief Information Officer and owner of Kinetic Networking, is responsible for not only the IT needs of the students, but all faculty and staff who are working remotely as well.
“It’s business as usual for us, just with a bit higher call volumes,” Rataiczak reported.
While his division is experiencing some normalcy now, two weeks ago, when plans were changing daily, they were working hard to stay ahead of the increasing demand, including amplifying the college’s Wi-Fi signal to reach the parking lot and allow students to access the Internet from the comfort of their vehicles. This was a priority service to provide because a large percentage of WSCC’s population reside in rural communities of the Mid-Ohio Valley—areas that are not served by high-speed Internet access. In addition, WSCC continues to assist students with technology needs by loaning Chromebooks and providing Wi-Fi hotspots.
“We have made every attempt to provide support that addresses the whole student and not just their academic needs. All of the resources we’ve provided are in place to help our students overcome obstacles that may keep them from earning their certificate or degree,” concluded Parker-Clever.