Those familiar with academia know that the wheels of change often move slowly. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has proven just how nimble institutions of higher learning can be.

With the health and safety of our students and employees of utmost importance, the state’s 15 community colleges, including North Shore Community College, have moved at lightning speed to ensure our students can effectively achieve their academic and completion goals for this semester.

When the virus started to impact Massachusetts a month ago, NSCC was on spring break. We began meeting daily to quickly determine how to comply with Gov. Charlie Baker’s call for as much remote operation as possible. The process to shift classroom-based academic courses to remote platforms took every working moment of our innovative faculty and support staff. We extended spring break another week to allow faculty to address the monumental task of shifting their curriculum midstream.

Fortunately, we already had in place much of the infrastructure needed to be able to “turn on a dime” and deal with remote learning and student services, such as Blackboard and Collaborate in the Cloud, VPN/equipment/Google Hangout, Meet, and Chat, many online student services including online registration, financial aid, payment, plus the ability to provide tutoring, advising, library academic support services online/remotely.

Of the more than 1,000 credit and noncredit courses in progress this semester, nearly 70 percent were being offered face-to-face in a classroom. Effective March 30, every one of these courses is now remote. I cannot tell you how proud and grateful I am of our faculty, academic and student support staff, and IT professionals who worked diligently to make this sea change happen in so little time.

As remote learning cannot exist without proper technology, we needed to ensure that our students had the tools they needed to complete their coursework. We ordered and distributed 300 Chromebooks on loan to students who do not have computers of their own. We simultaneously distributed our complete store of laptops and then turned to desktops to ensure that our faculty and staff moving to remote could connect. We bought new connecting subscriptions, like Zoom, and subscribed for remote proctored testing while training folks in these new technologies. To offer students remote support, we moved all our academic and financial advising online.

We communicated all these changes to our students and employees daily to keep people informed and feeling supported.

The college is still operating in the midst of the pandemic chaos. Although access to our campus facilities is restricted, they are being kept safe and sanitized by our tremendous campus police and facilities crews. In a few short weeks, we met the governor’s challenge and our students are continuing toward their educational goals.

This is not to say that the pandemic hasn’t seriously impacted many of our students, some of whom have lost their jobs and are suffering emotional and financial hardships meeting their housing, food and childcare needs. The NSCC Foundation graciously provided additional support to fund the college “Here to Help” programs. Donations to assist our students are welcome at http://www.northshore.edu/giving/

It takes a village … and NSCC villagers have gone above and beyond in responding to this extraordinary moment in history. I am honored to lead a community asset that, even in the hardest of times, fulfills its mission to help build the very workforce that is at the heart of helping us all navigate the pandemic ... our region’s first responders, nurses and other allied health professionals, and more.

Although we’ve been preoccupied, we haven’t forgotten our neighbors in need. We’ve loaned three ventilators and a BiPap machine to Winchester Hospital. We’ve also donated our surplus PPE to area health providers.

This pandemic will change public higher education and our world in ways we can’t now even imagine. Economic uncertainty and rising unemployment may mean for many a time to retool to be employed. NSCC and our sister community colleges stand ready to serve each and every one with our open access admission policy, affordable tuition, and our deep commitment to student success.

Dr. Patricia A. Gentile is president of North Shore Community College and chair of the Massachusetts Association of Community College Presidents.

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