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Kiara Balleza, a student at Harold Washington College, poses for a portrait Friday on her front porch in Marquette Park.
Kiara Balleza, a student at Harold Washington College, poses outside her home in Marquette Park.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

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City Colleges students’ struggles magnified by pandemic, but school’s tech investment paying off

Most classes have successfully moved online, students and faculty say, but the unique needs of City Colleges students still present hardships that aren’t as common at four-year schools.

At City Colleges, where about two-thirds of students at some schools experience food and housing insecurity, getting a degree has never been easy — and the coronavirus pandemic is making staying — let alone thriving — in school exponentially harder.

Students at City Colleges are more likely than traditional students at four-year schools to have full-time jobs, be raising children or even be experiencing homelessness.

One student’s parents both got laid off. Another is working overtime at a grocery store because of the increased demand. Not to mention the many returning adult students in the health industry who are trying to get additional certifications while being on the front lines of the outbreak.

Adding to those challenges are the colleges having to essentially move all classes online overnight.

But in interviews with the Sun-Times last week, students, faculty and staff at City Colleges say the rollout has been much smoother than many anticipated. That’s because of the institution’s significant investment in digital education in recent years, as well as programs to loan students needed equipment and retake classes for free — all of which has aided a quick and effective transition to online learning.

“If this had happened a few years ago, I don’t think City Colleges would have been able to handle this,” said English instructor Kristin Bivens, who teaches at Harold Washington College.

Computers await delivery to City Colleges of Chicago students who need them as part of the Loaner Laptop program, which is supplying computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to remote learning.
Computers await delivery to City Colleges of Chicago students who need them as part of the Loaner Laptop program, which is supplying computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to remote learning.
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The digital rollout

BrightSpace, an online education management tool, and Zoom, the video conferencing app, have allowed teachers to rework their classes from face-to-face instruction to remote learning in as little as a week.

Although teachers and students reported the new learning tools took some time to get used to following the move to remote learning on March 23, they said they expect instruction to continue to stabilize for the rest of the semester.

“Ultimately, I think it went pretty well, especially since no one could have really prepared for this,” Dawn Wilson, a nursing instructor at Malcolm X College, said last week.

The most common problems, according to faculty members who spoke with the Sun-Times, were relatively minor — Bivens helped a student test her internet connection after she couldn’t join a videoconference, for example.

Teachers have responded by offering more flexibility: Bivens gave students more time to complete an upcoming “in-class” essay, which was confirmed by timestamps registered when a student begins and finishes writing online.

Will Gardner, 19, a freshman at Harold Washington College, said it’s taking him time to adapt to remote learning.
Will Gardner, 19, a freshman at Harold Washington College, said it’s taking him time to adapt to remote learning.
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Not all students on board yet

Still, for students like Will Gardner, 19, the transition is taking some getting used to.

“Honestly, I have always struggled with online classes, so I’m having to adapt to this,” said Gardner. “We have a lot of sessions over Zoom, and sometimes it just feels like you’re watching a YouTube video.”

Gardner, who works full time at a West Loop ice cream shop, said the looser schedule has also left him feeling somewhat adrift while completing an English class at Harold Washington College.

“I liked having the schedule,” he said. “It’s very open ended [now] when you do your classes.”

Other students, though, say they appreciate the increased flexibility.

Kiara Balleza, a student at Harold Washington College, on Friday near her home in Marquette Park where she is studying remotely while also interning for a nonprofit organization.
Kiara Balleza is a member of student government at Harold Washington College and is also interning for a nonprofit organization.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Kiara Balleza, who is studying economics and public policy at Harold Washington, said her classes seldom use Zoom but have moved to a less rigid structure where assignments — mostly reading and writing exercises — are posted into BrightSpace.

That’s been helpful for her, since she’s working from home as an intern at Young Invincibles, a nonprofit dedicated to getting young people involved in the political process.

“I don’t have any problems with any of my courses,” said Balleza, 19.

Nancy Kipnis, a nursing instructor, said she’s had a 100% attendance rate in her classes since coming back online.

“The resources are really robust,” Kipnis said. “They’re engaged, they complete assignments and quizzes. It’s been a positive experience.”

$44 million commitment

Chancellor Juan Salgado said the school’s efforts in recent years to build a digital infrastructure for its more than 75,000 for-credit and continuing education students has paid off. Since mid-2018, City Colleges has been implementing a five-year, $44 million capital plan to enhance technology resources for students and faculty at the seven colleges that make up the system.

“If you don’t have the base technology, this becomes so much harder,” he said in an interview last week. “I would say we were prepared in that we had made the investments in platforms and technologies that permitted us to be able to do this in a week’s time.”

After Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s March 13 order to close all Illinois schools, college officials halted classes for a week, allowing instructors to get additional training while reworking their courses.

The result, officials said, was that 92% of their for-credit courses were back a week later, and the school plans to resume offering its free adult education courses, like GED and English as a second language, starting April 13.

City Colleges of Chicago Board of Trustees meet virtually for their Thursday meeting.
City Colleges of Chicago Board of Trustees meet virtually for a recent meeting.
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To make sure that students and faculty had the equipment they needed at home, the colleges have loaned more than 1,000 computers to anyone who needed one. Delivery of Wi-Fi hotspots began last week.

Provost Mark Potter said for classes that are more difficult to transition, they’ve sought solutions such as sending mannequins and supplies to students in cosmetology courses to work on at home, for example.

Last week, City Colleges also announced that students who are unable to continue with school or who are unhappy with their final grades can retake classes within a year for free.

Some struggles remain

Moving student services — including student advising, financial aid and wellness services — online is a much bigger challenge, Potter said.

A survey of students released last year found 60% of students at Kennedy-King College reported they experienced food insecurity, and 69% reported housing insecurity. Across the colleges, 16% of students with children reported homelessness, the survey found.

The closures during the coronavirus pandemic are “just magnifying issues that were already there,” Bivens said.

Kristin Bivens, an English instructor at Harold Washington College, at her home, where she is teaching remotely after a statewide order to close schools in March.
Kristin Bivens, an English instructor at Harold Washington College, at her home, where she is teaching remotely after a statewide order to close schools in March.
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Balleza, who works in student government, said her peers were addressing ongoing issues with officials, who said students rely on wellness centers for mental health counseling, which is now being done over the phone or on Zoom. The food pantry at Harold Washington College closed when the rest of the campuses shut down.

“I feel like I’m lucky,” Balleza said. “I have a friend, both her parents have been laid off.”

Bivens said she is concerned that the colleges could see a drop in students attending classes after spring break, with some of her students reporting that they are struggling with child care and work during the crisis. One student, she said, works at a grocery store and is working mandatory overtime while trying to keep up.

“I think students are having a really hard time right now,” Bivens said.

Harold Washington College teacher Kristin Bivens reads names at a graduation ceremony for students last year.
Harold Washington College teacher Kristin Bivens reads names at a graduation ceremony for students last year.
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And there are some things that no technology can really replace, Bivens said. The scheduled May 2 graduation has been canceled, and an online ceremony is now scheduled for early summer.

“Graduation is really important for a lot of these students,” Bivens said. “Doing it virtually is just not the same.”

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