Colleges and universities have had to transition more than just classes into a format that can be offered remotely. They've made adjustments to nearly every operation on their campuses, from tutoring and academic advising sessions to how they conduct campus tours for prospective students.
At the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Mickey Fitch-Collins, the interim executive director of student success, has overseen that transition for seven of the university's departments, three of which are federal government TRIO programs that serve students who have been disadvantaged, including low-income students.
"When this is all said and done ... I don't want to say we didn't try everything," Fitch-Collins said. "And I know I'm not the only that feels that way. I want to try whatever it is whenever it is to be as helpful as I can."
At UWS, where about half of the student body consists of first-generation college students, Fitch-Collins said she hears from students who have moved home, often to rural Wisconsin or Minnesota, where they are competing for resources in households of up to three or four generations of family members. On top of that, internet connections aren't always reliable and responsibilities can build for some students helping care for family members and younger siblings who are not in school.
While Fitch-Collins recognized there are some problems a university simply can't do anything about, they are trying to get as creative as possible in helping where they can. At many schools, including UWS, that includes setting up an emergency fund to funnel to students who need it most.
To keep tabs on how students are doing in their new distance-learning situations, UWS began using additional alert features offered through a student success-focused software program all UW campuses already used.
The early intervention program allows campus employees to put an alert on students for a variety of reasons, including low grades and poor attendance. Since the pandemic, UWS has since added internet and technology access issues as an alert. Faculty can also put an alert on students who aren't logging into their classes within the campuses online learning-management system.
"That (way) we could get back in touch with a student and say, 'Hey, you're not participating in your class. What's going on there?'" Fitch-Collins said.
UWS might see between 40 and 75 alerts come in a week. The early intervention alert approach, Fitch-Collins said, is one way to break down barriers for students while connecting them to campus resources and has shown to improve students' academic persistence.
Since the university has always had a large population of online students, Fitch-Collins said they're fairly used to offering student services remotely.
Prior to the pandemic, tutors could work with students remotely with the help of a tablet that allowed the tutor to write out things like math and science equations while the student watches. With more students unable to meet with their tutors, UWS has purchased a tablet for every student tutor to use.
"This whole situation is giving us insight into what it means to be an online student," Fitch-Collins said.
Currently, UWS has 10 undergraduate majors fully online, which include design-your-own majors and minors. Nine graduate degrees are also fully online.
Elijah Currie, a first-year criminal justice student who moved out of his dorm room and back home to Hinckley, Minn., is part of the university's Bridge program for first-year students who would benefit from additional academic support.
"There's more contact, more checking up since it's not in person," Currie said of how the program has evolved with distance learning. "There are more emails from people helping out with Bridge. They are more on you, but you kind of have to be more on yourself and on top of things."
For Currie, finishing up the semester from home has meant home-cooked meals and fewer distractions.
"Obviously it's not ideal, being face-to-face is kind of like one of the main reasons you go to college on campus," Currie said. "But at this point you kind of got to work with what you have."
Sarah Tapper is a third-year student studying visual arts with an art therapy concentration. She flew back home to Oklahoma for spring break, at which point she did not yet know she wouldn't return to campus. UWS has allowed her to keep her belongings in her dorm room until she can return.
Now she's figuring out how to make due in her classes without her usual art supplies.
"My professors are really understanding about it and we've just kind of worked it out where I can use whatever paints I have at home," Tapper said. "Luckily I had some."
Tapper is one of five siblings in the household. Four of them are current college students, all studying a range of disciplines. Being able to do her schoolwork alongside siblings is one of the silver linings to Tapper's distance-learning experience.
"It's kind of interesting to be able to see each other work because we never get that opportunity," Tapper said, referencing, for example, hearing her brother play the French horn. "We kind of help each other out with more creative projects. ... I really enjoy it."
Like many higher-education institutions, UWS is getting creative with how it's continuing to offer tours to prospective students.
Physical distancing announcements started affecting campuses during what would normally be the university's busiest time for tours, said Executive Director of Admissions Jeremy Nere, who oversees a variety of operations including undergraduate admissions, recruitment and financial aid.
"So we ended up having to cancel a lot of those, our spring preview event. So that's been challenging," Nere said. "To combat that we've been working with our marketing department to develop as much of a virtual tour experience as we can."
Tailored Zoom and phone calls with prospective students as well as videos from students, faculty and staff have replaced the on-campus tour experience.
One of the first things the university's counseling services department did was begin conducting phone consultations with all existing clients, said Randy Barker, interim director of counseling services.
"Because many of them were moving home we wanted to make sure they were settled, they were safe," Barker said. "And the biggest role for us was making sure we were connecting them as much as we could with community resources and referrals."
Counseling services is also working toward offering telecounseling services soon, something Barker said he foresees UWS continuing to offer even after pandemic-related restrictions have lifted.
"We wanted to make sure that this wasn't something that we were just going to react to without really making sure that we went through the proper steps," Barker said.
In addition to counseling services, Barker also oversees the Pruitt Center for Mindfulness and Well-being meant to promote the science and practice of mindfulness.
Through the Pruitt Center students, faculty and staff as well as community members. On a daily basis, people can Zoom in at 3:30 for a mindfulness session where people can practice proactive self care approaches that Barker said are more important than ever.
Students, faculty and staff can also to partake in yoga sessions via Zoom offered through the Pruitt Center.
"It's been challenging, yet valuable," Barker said of all the transitions. "We've learned a lot of different ways of doing this work. It may not always be ideal, but the reality is we've had to adjust."