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Reaching Students in a COVID-19 Focused Learning Environment

Reaching Students in a COVID-19 Focused Learning Environment


By Kristopher T. Loretz, President, Southeastern Institute

In the beginning…

If you are like me, or any number of individuals and families throughout the world right now, you are navigating a whole new environment. Going to the grocery store is different. Getting gas is different. Learning is different. Visiting friends is different. Hugging your family … it’s just different. And yet, amid all these different challenges society faces, we still have a job to do. Now, however, for schools, that job goes beyond teaching. It’s my true belief that we have yet to know the full impact of this virus. Even when a vaccine is found, the long-term mental and emotional ramifications will linger long afterward.

As an educator, I knew that when COVID-19 struck, it was going to be very important for us to find a way to quickly engage our students in this new “virtual” learning environment.

Failure to do so in a timely manner would most certainly result in us losing contact with them, which would most likely mean, they’d be withdrawn or drop out. Most of our students were not equipped, either technically, or mentally, to attend school online. They had chosen hands-on for a reason. And what we realized right away with the pandemic, is that the thing people were craving most, was contact. To directly address this, we instituted a synchronous learning environment. In layman’s terms, we didn’t leave students to self-teach on our e-learning platform, but instead focused on scheduling live, interactive sessions. The Dean of Academics, the Campus President and other key personnel on campus also logged into the classes with these students, so that they would see not just their fellow students, but also the faces they had grown accustomed to seeing on a regular basis at the campus. When students did not attend the live lecture, faculty reached out to them via phone or text message. We scheduled one-on-one virtual tutoring sessions with those students who were struggling in the online environment. The focus of our entire team, staff and faculty alike, was to make sure that our existing students knew that we were here, and that we cared about them. No one was to be lost. Even our Admissions team engaged with the students they had worked with to enroll into the School. New student enrollment went down in the first few months of COVID-19, but our retention rates were well over 80%. Not only were students engaging us and attending class, but they were also doing so successfully!

Halloween at Southeastern CollegeAt our School, we pride ourselves on the Student Appreciation events we hold monthly. Everything from random donut days, to cookouts, to pancake breakfasts, to simple fun dress down days – the students were missing out on these, and so were the staff! We had to brainstorm ways to still do fun events with our student body, even though we couldn’t all be together. In doing so, we realized that many families were stuck at home. Financially they couldn’t afford to do much. And even if they could, what was there to do with almost everything closed? With Halloween coming up, one of the biggest and most fun events we did was a socially distanced trunk-or-treat and drive-in movie night. Students were invited to come, with their families, in costume. Staff parked their cars in alternating spaces, filled the trunks up with candy, and allowed kids to grab what they wanted. Then the students returned to their cars, tuned their radios to the appropriate station, sat back, and watched Disney Pixar’s Coco on the big screen. For a small investment, we purchased enough candy to fill almost two dozen trunks, a large inflatable movie screen, a high definition projector and an FM transmitter. But more importantly, we were able to provide our students and their families something they hadn’t had an opportunity to experience in months … a night out together.

Southeaster pinningIn thinking about the things our students were missing out on, we acknowledged that many of our Allied Health students, who were completing their programs during COVID-19, were not able to experience the traditional recognition given during pinning ceremonies, commencement, and celebrations with family and friends. To address this, we orchestrated a “drive-thru” pinning ceremony. Students lined up in an adjacent parking lot, and then with music playing, horns honking, signs being held out windows, they drove one by one up to the front of the School, through a line of socially distanced faculty, holding signs, where they were safely handed their earned pin, and a rose, acknowledging their success. The smiles on their faces spoke volumes!

Typically, we would hold a bi-annual Professional Development day, wherein all students attend seminars with guest speakers throughout the scheduled day. This is a very important aspect of our professional preparation for our graduates. And here is where we broke ground again on something else that was new for us. By using Zoom and the Breakout Rooms feature, we were able to hold a Professional Development Day with over 300 students and staff attending six different sessions throughout the day. And here’s the kicker… the students attended, and they attended in professional attire! (Well, at least what we could see from the waist up!)

What’s happening now…

As many states, including ours, moved into different phases, we were able to start coming back onto campus with obvious safety measures in place. Even when we were finally able to physically have staff and students together on campus, we knew not everyone would be able to come, or be comfortable doing so. This meant we had to get creative on how to stay engaged with the students. We were back, but most of the students weren’t. In fact, many of them were now not only going to school themselves, but also working and teaching their own kids at home. Life was quickly getting overwhelming. And on top of that, the CDC and State mandates meant we had to abide by social-distance guidelines and limit the number of people in our building and classrooms. How do we do that, but maintain the feeling of a classroom environment?

Southeastern College ClassroomFirst, we purchased 360-degree webcams and installed them in every classroom along with larger 43-inch monitors. Then we increased the speed of our internet service throughout the entire building, almost doubling the number of wi-fi hotspots. With this new technology, we can place the webcams in the center or front of the classrooms and live-stream the lecture on our e-learning platform. Those students who are more comfortable staying home, can do so and still be a part of the same exact class that the students who choose to come to campus are in. Those students at home are displayed on the large monitors and the teacher can lecture and interact with students as if they are all together in one room, while also presenting on the whiteboards. This still doesn’t address the hands-on portions of the program, but it keeps the students engaged. When it comes to hands-on, that is a bit trickier. Currently, we are scheduling hands-on classwork in small, staggered groups that meet or are below the mandated allowed number of persons. Also, students still have the option to not attend and instead take an incomplete until they are able to complete the necessary hands-on components. We are also working with licensing boards and accreditors for virtual options, such as Capstone, etc. But the key is contact and engagement!

reachingstudentsWith students back on campus, it presented a chance for us to do more Student Appreciation events. There is a great little app for your phone called “Holiday Today” – this is not a paid plug. This app tells you all the Day’s national or international or world or general quirky holidays for any given date. Using this app, we can find fun things to “celebrate,” like National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day on which we put out individually wrapped cookies. (It’s August 4 by the way.) Or we brewed a forty-cup pot of coffee and put it out in the Student Lounge for National Coffee Day (October 1). We find that little things like this, make a big difference. In fact, one of my best days recently was when my Student Services Director shared a phone conversation that she’d overheard. A young woman was talking with her mother wherein she said “I’m so glad I came here Mom … I don’t know, it’s just different, like, they really care about us here…” That right there tells me, we are making a difference.

The future…

No one knows what the future holds, but as I stated previously, even with a vaccine, the mental and emotional toll this has taken on all of us is yet to be seen. Institutions will need to partner with mental health advocates and connect with local organizations to provide the necessary resources to their constituents. School administrators should put together cross-functional committees to brainstorm new ways of engaging the student population. Staff and faculty will need to be more flexible with their expectations of students and with their time. The typical day or evening schedule will no longer exist in this post-pandemic world.

One thing is for certain, our society has changed and our sector along with it. And now we need to change too. The COVID-19 crisis has made us think outside of the box to recognize new opportunities and the possibility of new and exciting achievements.

If we cannot open our minds, we may just find ourselves closing our doors.

Kristopher Loretz

KRIS LORETZ’S career has been in leadership and relationship building for over 20 years. He’s proven himself as someone who is forward-thinking and who can successfully grow an organization with a focus on community and goals. In his professional and personal experiences, he focuses on compassion and respect. Kris has received multiple promotions professionally with non-profit, private and proprietary organizations.

His proven record of success includes managing all aspects of business operations, driving growth through increased client development and attrition, maintaining strong profit margins and low debit balances, while significantly limiting bad debt expenses. His responsibilities include active involvement in impacting advertising, marketing, staff development and retention, strategic planning and outcomes reporting.

Currently, he is the President of Southeastern Institute in Charlotte, NC. Mr. Loretz was appointed to the North Carolina Proprietary School Board by the General Assembly’s Speaker of the House. He holds the position of President with the North Carolina Association of Career Colleges and Schools. And he serves as the Chairman for the advisory committee to the North Carolina Community College system’s Office of Proprietary Schools.

In 2011, Kris acted upon his industry vision and created Complete Educational Solutions, where he and his network of connections, consult with colleagues and educational organizations on how to improve outcomes and foster strong management techniques that produce a culture based on integrity. This organization focuses on meeting the ever-changing, and always important, current industry and societal standards.

His experience includes, but is not limited to, state, national and programmatic accreditation standards, as well as start-up programs and regulatory approvals. With a strong compliance focus, Kris prides himself on being solution driven, detail oriented, and quick to learn and utilize new skills, while focusing on a team mindset with strong communication skills that exude energy and passion.

Contact Information: Kristopher T. Loretz // President // Southeastern Institute // 704-527-4979 // kloretz@southeasterninstitute.edu // www.southeasterninstitute.edu // https://www.linkedin.com/in/kloretz/ // https://www.linkedin.com/school/southeastern-institute/ // https://www.facebook.com/SoutheasternCollegeHigherEd // https://www.instagram.com/seceducation/ // https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCS0RYoZT3OSRgyV1tErOf1g


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