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Harford Community College prepares to welcome back students on campus as fall semester begins on Monday

Theresa B. Felder came to Harford Community College at a unique time. When she started her new job as the college’s 10th president in January, few students — not to mention staff — were on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the fall semester, which begins Monday, all staff and a majority of students will be back on the college’s Bel Air campus for the first time in more than a year.

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Employees returned for the fall semester last week, and about 70% of the college’s class offerings for the upcoming semester will be face-to-face, Felder said. The remainder will continue to be taught remotely.

“So we’re almost fully back to pre-pandemic levels,” she said.

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But the goal, Felder said, “is not to get back to where we were as much as determine what students need and want and offer that in a schedule.”

The college is seeing a bit more demand for online classes than expected and is trying to meet that demand.

Felder acknowledge that some students struggled with online and virtual learning, and are eager to return to campus for classes.

“But there were other students who found ‘Hey, I can be successful and, wow, this is flexible,’ and so they are choosing to stay online,” she said.

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Others still, are not quite ready to come back to in-person learning, particularly as the delta variant has created a new surge in COVID cases.

To prepare for students who are returning to campus, the college has taken several safety measures, including steps to improve air quality in the buildings using federal funds.

The operations team at the college completed campus-wide upgrades to air filtration systems and PPE, installing MERV-13 level filters in buildings for removing particulates, and purchasing portable air purification units in small study rooms, classrooms and meeting spaces, according to the college’s website.

Additionally, reverse occupancy UV lighting to sanitize areas like elevators and bathrooms were installed, and permanent acrylic barriers were also placed in public areas.

Federal funds were also used to give some faculty training to do online teaching.

“They had to immediately pivot to online and some instructors had not really taught a lot online,” Felder said. “We spent some funds to get them trained so they can deliver online instruction effectively,” to students who wished to continue learning virtually.

The college also upgraded some of its technology, and has a number of laptops to loan, Felder said, just in case it should have to revert to remote learning should transmission reach levels that health officials no longer believe it’s safe for students and staff to be on campus.

While the college lifted mask mandates in July, those were reinstituted Aug. 16 and all employees and students will be required to wear masks during the upcoming semester when indoors.

“Everyone will be in a mask because I do realize there’s a little bit of anxiety now,” Felder said. “It looked like we were home free a month, six weeks ago, but now people are feeling a little more nervous.”

She does not anticipate community colleges in Maryland requiring COVID vaccines for staff or students, however, even once the shots receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

“Community colleges don’t have a precedence for requiring vaccines; four-year institutions do, because they have housing and people are living together,” she said. “We do not have housing and haven’t required vaccines in the past. So right now, we’re not seriously considering them. If there was some reason to do so, I don’t see that right now.”

Felder is also not considering requiring college staff be vaccinated, she said.

Now about eight months on the job, Felder is settling in and has her eye on the future. While decreasing enrollment has been a universal challenge for community colleges and other institutions of higher learning, Felder thinks that can be addressed by focusing on how to retain students.

“Enrollment isn’t just recruiting new students, it’s also keeping and completing existing students,” she said. “We’re looking at the data to determine who are the students who are not successful and not able to complete and what do we need to do to complete them at greater rates.”

She also wants to ensure the college is making inroads in parts of the community that need additional education and training, particularly along the Route 40 corridor.

The Leading Edge Training Center Powered by the Ratcliffe Foundation is expected to open soon and offering training, including how to operate a forklift, carpentry and CDL training using simulators.

“There is some work that we’re doing down there to help that part of the county that we feel needs our assistance,” she said.

Being able to reach the county’s adult population — including those who may have started working toward a degree but never finished — is another enrollment initiative of the college.

“How do we capture them? We have to have the programs — not just the linear, two-year, come to school program — but do the short-term accreditations so we can stack credentials to help people advance in their employability.”

Felder also said she’s working toward improving transparency and communication at the college, something the previous administration came under fire for lacking.

In a way, the pandemic forced the college’s administration to change how it communicates with not just students but also staff, Felder said. Since she came on, she started sending weekly email newsletters, videos sharing information and having open, two-way forums where people can ask questions of her and her cabinet.

“You have to be very deliberate about disseminating information when you’re not seeing each other,” she said. “Otherwise, people are left in the dark. Certainly, coming out of the pandemic there are lessons learned that we’ll carry forward. The ways we communicated were effective then will be even more effective as we come back together to ensure that we just keep all of that, but add face-to-face opportunities to the mix.”

The president is also offering open office hours to staff, who can sign-up to talk with her about anything — “we can talk about their children or their concern about the classroom.”

Felder wants the college to have a feeling of family, and makes a point to greet students, faculty and staff that way.

“My greeting is always HCC family,” she said. “When we have convocation, it’s a family reunion. When I greet students I say ‘Welcome to the HCC family,’ because it’s not us and them. We’re all in it together.”

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