MALTA — On Tuesday, Jan. 11, Kishwaukee College President Dr. Laurie Borowicz marked her sixth anniversary in her position.
To say the least, Kish has changed since. The college’s courses were 17 percent online in 2016. That number is now up to 70 percent online, much of which can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic of the last 20 months. All of Kish’s support services like advising and tutoring are now available online.
When Borowicz would walk around campus when the pandemic first started and in-person learning was shut down, it felt sad to her. With a fraction of students attending in-person classes now, Kish is working on shrinking where it offers its classes on campus to try to get some sense of community back.
“The thing I love about working in higher education is the energy that people give off when they're transforming their lives,” Borowicz said. “They're learning, growing and developing. Being on a college campus with people who are transforming themselves is magical. It’s been hard. But I am committed to working through this. And we're going to figure it out. And we hope at some point we get to the other side and we have a little bit more normal. Not one way or another, but meeting it in the middle. I hope someday to have more students on our campus and to be able to interact with them on a more regular basis."
Borowicz said Kish was in a good position at the start of the pandemic due to having remote learning systems and processes already in place. It just had to be done on a much bigger scale. A lot of conversations were had about what education would look like with students locked out of buildings. Borowicz feels that time was navigated “quite well.”
The uncertainty that followed the initial lockdown was when things started to get more difficult for Kish, Borowicz said.
“We spent so much energy trying to speculate about what was next,” Borowicz said. “Are we going to be face-to-face? Are we going to stay virtual? Are we going to have students who come back to campus? I really think when we closed in March, we thought it would only last a couple of weeks. That's what we planned for initially. Nobody anticipated this."
To combat effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning, Kish was awarded a total of $11,422,434 in Higher Education Relief Funds over the past 20 months. A large part of that money was spent on investments in technology to aid in online instruction, including online testing software and professional development for faculty.
“There are so many tools and resources that we've implemented to really help in the online environment,” Borowicz said. “On our physical campus we've had to do some things as well. We've had to put up things like plexiglass and we've done masking and gated off doors and bought technology to swipe in and they get passes to come in the door. I would say that definitely the vast majority of where we've had to spend resources is in the support of technology."
Borowicz said the most difficult matter to deal with during the pandemic has been the governor’s executive order that mandates vaccinations or weekly testing for students and staff on campus. In the fall 2021 semester, 74 percent of employees and 26.6 percent of students were fully vaccinated and approximately 225 individuals completed weekly testing.
Kish provides a testing site on its campus for unvaccinated students and staff. Borowicz said she respects that the college needs to play its part in public health, but it has not been easy. Enrollments are down for the spring semester, almost twice as much as they were for fall.
“I have no doubt that it's because of how we had to lock down our campus and not permit people on our campus without vaccination,” Borowicz said. “I have a fellow president that I had a conversation about this with and she felt the same. That this was the toughest part, after all of the COVID-19 stuff, then getting hit with this. Again, I totally recognize and understand this. But it was a blow. It's a blow that I think is going to have some long-term consequences for community colleges."
The Kish President believes there will be less students who enroll at the college in the future due to the vaccine mandate. As far as staff, Borowicz said everyone has complied with the mandate and Kish had been “fortunate” in that way.
The college did have a couple of part-time instructors leave due to the mandate, Borowicz said, but besides that, there “hasn’t been a lot“ of staff turnover.
“The great resignation hasn't hit us like we're seeing in the media, which is nice,” Borowicz said. “We've tried a couple of different programs where even as we've come back to more face-to-face learning and services, where people still have the option to do some remote work for their jobs. Some jobs can't, but others can and we continue to work on some remote options for staff so that we can keep them."
Kish hired people to help with its testing center. The campus, which has “60-something” doors, is now letting students into just two of them. With local health departments no longer doing contact tracing procedures, the college has also had to take on that task for students and staff.
Borowicz said Kish is taking the pandemic and ever-changing procedures “week-by-week.”
“I think if we can just keep the students and the community at our forefront, and have the hope and promise that this will end,” Borowicz said. “Well, it'll never end, but we'll be able to live with it a little more normally. And we just keep hoping that is coming soon. Because we have not been focusing on higher education. From an administrative perspective, we have not been focusing on our students as much as we've been focusing on COVID-19. And that isn't sustainable."
The rapid rate of change during the pandemic is what’s made the COVID-19 pandemic most difficult for Kish, Borowicz said. But the school was already changing pre-COVID-19 and it did “a lot” to enhance the student experience and be more efficient as an organization. The pandemic forced it to make switches more quickly.
Due to its leadership team, Kish has been able to do just that, Borowicz said.
“Because they are a collaborative team,” Borowicz said. “I would definitely say I feel like Kish has done a good job of navigating COVID-19 and it's because of our collaborative spirit."
Borowicz believes some good has and will come out of the pandemic. Online education was already growing in previous years, and recently it’s been forced to grow more at places like Kish, which makes learning more accessible to some students.
“It meets people where they are,” Borowicz said. “In a world of constant competing interests, whether it's family, work, taking care of parents or whatever the case may be, online education gives people the chance to go to school who maybe wouldn't have before.”
Kish has not yet seen concrete numbers on what the pandemic has caused in terms of a learning loss for students. It’s too early to tell, Borowicz said. Kish plans to study and look at what its retention rate was before and after the governor’s order along with other numbers.
When thinking of lessons learned from the pandemic so far, Borowicz spoke about the importance of communication, collaboration and having a strong leadership team on staff to help get through crisis situations.
Despite pandemic changes and difficulties, Kish’s mission to educate its students has not wavered.
"I want people to know that we're here,” Borowicz said. “Now and in the future. And we are flexible and nimble and focused on meeting the needs of our students and our communities. And that's not going to change. And we're not going to cave or cower. We're just going to keep pushing along. Because that's why we're here."