Education leaders, from school principals and district superintendents to college chancellors and presidents, are planning for a variety of scenarios as the fall school year draws near.
The future of education remains unclear. Most schools in Arkansas are planning to resume in-person instruction but also are making contingency plans should the 2020 pandemic require another full-time shift to online education.
Arkansas Money & Politics spoke with eight education leaders from across the state about what lies ahead for Arkansas education in the age of coronavirus.
Dr. Evelyn Jorgenson, President
Community College, Bentonville
Are two-year colleges better situated to weather the coronavirus storm than traditional four-year schools?
I believe that two-year colleges may be better able to weather the coronavirus storm than some traditional four-year schools. This is primarily due to several factors. First, community colleges have always been known as the most flexible and nimble of all higher-education institutions. Community colleges tend to have fewer layers of administration and bureaucracy and are capable of making decisions and making changes in programming, structure and courses with minimal delay. The need to transition in mid-semester to online instruction went more smoothly than we anticipated.
Second, most community colleges, particularly in Arkansas, do not yet have athletics or residential housing. Both of those add another level of complexity when dealing with a highly contagious virus and pandemic such as we are experiencing now. The simplicity of the non-residential campus is helpful in this scenario.
Finally, community colleges tend to be very community-focused and certainly at NWACC, we tend to consult with and accept advice from area business and industry. We work together to meet the needs of the community and the students who are preparing to enter the workforce or transfer to a university.
In addition to digital learning, do you think the pandemic could lead more students to seek hyperlocal, skills-based training?
I personally believe that the pandemic will lead to more students seeking local, skills-based training in addition to online classes. The jury is still out on that however, and we’ll see how fall semester shapes up. Some students, particularly younger, traditional-aged college students, may feel safer staying at home with parents during the pandemic.
Some parents may prefer that as well. Those students could benefit from the local community college and either pick up general education courses in preparation for their transfer to their university or invest in some workforce training that could provide them with skills training suitable for high-wage job opportunities in the local area. Many college students want that full, university experience of living in a residence hall and joining with large groups of students in lecture halls, at football games and other events, but if that close proximity to so many others is perhaps unsafe in a pandemic, students may want to take classes online, invest in skills-based training, or otherwise access learning options while delaying their start at the university.
The opportunity for short-term, skills-based training, leading to a high-wage job could certainly be a solution also for students grappling with how to afford a four-year degree when they do choose to go to a four-year college or university. Many options exist but certainly, skills-based training from NorthWest Arkansas Community College is a productive one.
Dr. Jamie Burris, Principal
Dardanelle High School
If the pandemic escalates a move to more virtual education, how will such a shift impact school districts as opposed to colleges and universities?
As many facets of the community have been impacted by COVID-19, public education has not been excluded. If the pandemic escalates to force a move in public education to more virtual learning, such impacts could be paramount to school districts in general and on the future of K-12 education.
First, most public schools have not been using online learning in a broad capacity for all students. Knowing this, school districts are facing demanding needs for more technology, teacher professional development and a shift in the current practices regarding how K-12 schools operate. Second, the public school educates all students where ages and individual needs are highly diversified. Public schools must determine how students at age 5 will learn to read through online education and how students at age 18 will learn advanced calculus.
Furthermore, districts must examine how they will accomplish this while meeting the social and emotional needs of all students. To a large degree, the level of student success will be determined by the support system at home. Finally, this implementation is difficult in that public schools need sufficient time to research and implement practices. Rather, schools are at the crux of perhaps the biggest change in public education with little time to prepare and implement. This implementation within public schools is critical and the level of student preparedness will ultimately impact higher education.
What are some of the ways it has impacted rural schools especially, and does the model of delivery change for those schools moving forward?
Although all schools are impacted by the implementation of online learning, rural schools are facing issues with limited internet connectivity, devices and resources that are essential to meet the needs of students. Nonetheless, all schools are going to have to examine ways that they can utilize a digital platform or another means to provide a blended learning approach for all students. Knowing this, it is going to be paramount that rural schools seek community participation in order for this endeavor to be a team-based approach to educating students.
Furthermore, with this change in delivery, rural schools are going to be forced to seek grant opportunities and other means of financial support in order to meet the needs of teachers and students in an environment of digital learning. As opposed to urban schools, rural schools may only be allowed to offer a blended approach for a limited time if there is not a strong support system in place. Only time will tell.
Dr. Christina Drale, Chancellor
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Will the pandemic simply expedite necessary shifts in the way higher education is delivered?
Online education is certainly not new to higher education as most institutions now have online curriculum and degree programs. UA Little Rock has been offering online education for many years and has a fully developed infrastructure to support this type of delivery. Nevertheless, the pandemic has brought more faculty into the online environment than ever before and this will undoubtedly promote more hybrid uses of online tools even after the pandemic. In that sense, it has expedited basic proficiency in the use of the online learning management systems and that will help institutions maintain more flexibility in the future.
How can UA Little Rock and other traditional campuses best adapt if the model evolves to more digital classrooms?
UA Little Rock has already demonstrated that it can quickly adapt to an all online environment when necessary, but that isn’t where we would want to stay. Campuses like ours provide more than individual courses. We see ourselves as a physical presence in and a contributing member of the Central Arkansas community. We offer online degrees, but we also regard UA Little Rock as a campus community that provides a full range of student services and experiences on campus and in the field as well as online. We can do a lot of things online, but many of our students also want the college experience that comes with face-to-face interaction. If UA Little Rock and other physical campuses are unable to restore that experience, we may see significant decline in access to higher education overall.
Dr. Ben Sells, President
Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia
Will the pandemic lead to a fundamental change in the way higher education is delivered?
In pre-COVID days, higher education in this country including in Arkansas faced two significant challenges: demographics and doubt. For several years, the number of undergraduate students in the state’s colleges and universities decreased, reflecting demographics — declining birth rates led to declining numbers of high school graduates. Moreover, it’s a trend that’s forecasted to persist for another decade. Having fewer students but the same number of institutions creates financial challenges for the institutions.
At the same time, students and their parents have increasingly questioned the value of higher education. Their criticisms are valid when considering some of the low graduation and placement rates combined with high debt. When COVID-19 emerged, it amplified the disruption already underway. That’s why CARES Act funds for our students and institutions have been an important financial bridge during the pandemic. We won’t know the depth of the short-term impact of COVID-19 on higher education for a year. There are some enduring features of higher education that shouldn’t change, but there are other features that must change. Colleges and universities are historically resistant to fundamental change, but no institution is impervious to change, even change that is fundamental in nature.
Would a seismic, or at least substantial, shift in the current education model have a more profound impact on private schools?
As people, we’re relational by design. We develop — educationally, socially, spiritually and in other ways — not just by our own effort, but through the engagement and influence of other people. This is why private institutions prize living and learning together — where up to 95 percent of students live on campus, and faculty are devoted primarily to teaching and mentoring. The required human capital and physical infrastructure makes residential education an expensive model, but it leads to excellent results.
For example, Arkansas’ private institutions historically enroll 10 percent of the state’s college students but produce 20 percent of the state’s graduates. The small size of many private institutions makes them agile and helps them navigate the short-term challenges of COVID-19. However, private universities are often more financially dependent on enrollment, so a decline in students, our cost structure, and the uncertainty and expenses related to COVID-19 are a significant threat. Because people are inherently relational, there will always be a place for the highly residential and personal approach to undergraduate higher education. But, the education and experience must be exceptional in value for students while also being affordable, delivered by committed faculty and staff and supported by generous alumni and friends.
Houston Davis, President
University of Central Arkansas, Conway
With such potential for disruption, does the pandemic fundamentally change the model for higher education moving forward?
With the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic and an unknown timeline, it is hard to say at this point if there will be permanent changes to the way academic instruction is delivered. We do know, however, that the 2020-21 academic year will continue to see adjustments and changes.
We are planning for face-to-face instruction for the majority of the fall 2020 semester, but we are developing protocols to practice social distancing in the classroom and prepare for flexible shifts to remote delivery, if required. Groups are working together to identify appropriate physical distancing, density in spaces, and alternative scheduling options and locations for classes. These groups are also putting together a menu of options to support academic departments and instructors as they teach and communicate with students in new ways.
Many courses are being designed as hybrid models, minimizing the need for the full class to attend physically at the same time. Regardless of format, all UCA classes for the upcoming academic year and for the foreseeable future will be designed to allow for a pivot to remote or online attendance and instruction if required.
How has UCA been impacted?
When COVID-19 began to impact the United States, UCA was already in year three of our Resource Optimization Initiative (ROI), a campus-wide effort to maximize our budget in the face of unpredictable enrollment trends and limited state funding. During the course of this initiative, we have been focused on aligning our existing resources to support student success, investing in strategic initiatives, building financial reserves, and retaining employees at a competitive market salary.
As an institution of higher education, we were already preparing for the impending “enrollment cliff.” This refers to a time around 2026, when colleges and universities across the nation will see a rapid drop in first-time freshmen due to a post-Great Recession birth rate decline. COVID-19 came along and disrupted those plans. We knew enrollment declines were on the horizon, but none of us could predict a pandemic right around the corner. Normal operations have been challenged and state support for public universities and colleges is facing restrictions from the economic downturn. In March of this year, UCA’s portion of the state appropriation cut equaled $2.9 million with three months to go in the fiscal year. In April, that cut became permanent and larger for the upcoming fiscal year, with UCA receiving $7.3 million less (-13.5 percent) from the state as we begin FY21 compared to when we started FY20.
Due to our ROI-related efforts, we were perhaps better positioned to address those cuts than some other institutions around the country. As we look to the fall semester, we do see encouraging signs from our returning and new students. Our summer enrollments are up from summer 2019 and registrations for the fall semester were running slightly ahead of last fall’s registrations. Reservations for campus housing are at 98.2 percent of capacity, and students and their families seem very eager to come back to campus and to learn more about the adjustments we are making for the fall semester to living and learning environments in the COVID-19 era. We are equally excited to get them back as a part of our community and family at UCA.
Dr. Kelly Damphousse, Chancellor
Arkansas State University, Jonesboro
Will the pandemic fundamentally change the model in which higher education is delivered?
The pandemic has changed how information is shared by everyone, not just education or higher education. Fortunately, for many types of courses, we have extremely inventive faculty and flexible students who have worked to continue learning by online means. A-State is blessed to have a strong infrastructure for that, given that we have the largest online degree program in the state. At the same time, there are some courses that simply cannot be well achieved without face-to-face instruction such as labs or practicums. We have worked to create physical distancing guidelines and other accommodations to keep these courses moving ahead. While we hope that this pandemic will eventually fade away, we have all learned to be better prepared for catastrophic disruptions like a novel virus, an economic downturn, or a natural disaster.
How can traditional four-year campuses remain a viable option moving forward?
For all the upheaval we have seen in 2020 — economic, pandemic, health and weather (Jonesboro was hit by a tornado this spring) — there remain some great constants. Higher education is the path way to a better life. We believe that we are changing the lives of people who come to A-State to live, learn, and serve. We know that Arkansas State has had a tremendous impact in lifting our citizens to better paying jobs and careers. Study after study continues to confirm that having a four-year degree leads to substantial differences in lifetime earnings. For many first-generation students like me, A-State is their best pathway to that transformation. The pandemic has reminded us that the ability to continue work online can keep students on track. And, for many that are place-bound or time-limited by current jobs or family obligations, our growing online program fills that gap. As a Carnegie Research 2 university, we also serve as the knowledge engine of our local and regional businesses and economy. Creating practical applications of our basic research has a direct impact on society, and no other institution can fulfill that quite like a four-year university campus.
Dr. Jim Rollins, Superintendent
Springdale School District
How has the pandemic and the move to virtual education impacted the school district as opposed to colleges and universities?
All educational institutions are being significantly impacted. Schools are looking at traditional face-to-face learning venues, blended-learning models and remote-learning models, and are attempting to determine which of those venues best suits their students and their families. Given the direction currently provided by the state, schools will likely attempt to cling as closely as possible to the traditional models of instructional delivery but will be prepared to quickly pivot to an alternative system should medical emergencies facing their students require adjustment.
Are local schools more likely to maintain some semblance of the traditional delivery model moving forward?
I believe the traditional model is preferred by most families. That said, some families will seek after and choose, if possible, the option of remote instruction. Schools are attempting to manage the unknown, and in this case flexibility to respond is a must. The most recent projection by the Arkansas Health Department of positive cases indicates that the pandemic is likely to peak in late September, with significant numbers of positive cases occurring before Sept. 30. Those significant increases, should they materialize, will warrant alternative models for delivery of instruction.
Dr. Richard Abernathy, Executive Director
Arkansas Association of Educational
Administrators, Little Rock
Has the pandemic expedited a permanent shift in the way education is delivered?
Education has shifted to a new norm due in a large part from the pandemic. Districts have been changing their delivery of instruction over the past several years as new technology became available. The pandemic shifted this change into high gear.
Students will have more options in the future on how they want their learning delivered. Online/virtual learning will become a permanent method for delivering instruction. Face-to-face instruction will continue to be available for students. And blended learning will be something that students will be able to participate in as well in the future.
What kind of impact do you foresee for school districts across the state, especially rural ones?
I can see where districts will no longer have a “snow” day due to their ability to shift instruction online. Students will still have access to lessons when they are sick or just not able to attend school on a particular day.
All of these are positive changes and something that will be good for families. On the downside, we have found a huge inequity when it comes to affordable broadband for our citizens. The lack of affordable broadband in some of our communities is just inexcusable and something that Arkansas, as well as the rest of the nation, should make a priority. Broadband is now a necessary utility that should be affordable for everyone in our state. Hopefully, we can figure out how to make this happen for the sake of our kids as well as economic development.