Karissa Sims didn't know what to expect when she returned for her second year as a nursing student at Northeast Community College last fall.
Earlier in the spring, the coronavirus pandemic forced classes to go online, and shut down clinical programs in the Norfolk area as health care facilities closed their doors to outside visitors.
"I was a little nervous going into this school year that it was going to be more of the same," the Columbus resident said. "We have to go into those facilities to get experience and get those skills."
But as the school year approached, Sims said her worry quickly disappeared.
Over the summer, instructors grew more confident in their ability to conduct classes online, and the hands-on experience students gained at clinics and long-term care facilities returned, allowing students to once again put the lessons learned in the classroom and simulation into practice with real people.
The effort to keep community colleges such as Northeast open paid off, as Nebraska's community colleges fared better than other two-year academic transfer or career or technical programs across the country when it comes to enrollment.
Nationally, community colleges took the hardest hit among postsecondary institutions, suffering on average a 10% drop from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
"We managed to weather the storm compared to other places," said Greg Adams, executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association.
At Northeast, Michele Gill, vice president of educational services, said despite the college hosting only one-quarter of its classes in person — the rest continued to be delivered online — the college saw virtually no change in the number of students enrolled.
Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the college based in Norfolk lost just 10 students. A total of 4,567 students were enrolled when the college took its census last fall.
"We were a little nervous because we knew we weren't going to be 100% normal," Gill said. "For us, the pandemic maybe wasn't as traumatic as other places."
There was a lot of hard work that went into keeping students at Northeast, however.
Shanelle Grudzinski, the dean of applied technology, said the college added sections in order to keep class sizes small and socially distanced, particularly trade programs that rely upon hands-on learning activities, and built schedules in such a way to rotate when students were on campus.
"What truly has helped us is our ability to be flexible, to be able to adapt to the changing needs, and we used all of our resources to maintain contact with students and prospective students to keep them informed," Grudzinski said. "Once they saw that, we were able to bring folks back."
Instead of an enrollment dip, as it had prepared for, Northeast saw growth in its trades programs, Grudzinski said, which she attributed to the promise of face-to-face instruction, as well as the demand for skilled workers by employers.
Northeast's health sciences programs also stayed relatively stable, said Karen Weidner, the interim dean of health and wellness and the director of nursing.
By investing time and resources to better prepare faculty to teach online, Weidner said the fall semester programs were more engaging and just as rigorous for students.
"Our graduates coming out of the program are well-prepared," she said. "We might have had to do things a little bit differently, but we are meeting our objectives."
Weidner said Northeast also made a more concerted effort to check in with students, to ensure their needs were being met. As the director of nursing, she met personally with students every week to monitor their progress toward graduating.
Sims said the nursing students have found ways to stay connected in a pandemic world, meeting virtually to talk about volunteer or job opportunities, as well as holding study and tutoring sessions, which are better attended now than they were last year.
And Morgan Haner, a second-year accounting student from Sterling, said programs such as TRiO, a federal program providing services to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, made the leap from in-person to online, providing students with the support they needed.
At Southeast Community College, a loss in academic transfer students was offset by growth in technical programs, said President Paul Illich. Overall, SCC's enrollment was down about 5% compared with last year.
With many SCC students enrolled in the academic transfer program also taking classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the university campus shortening its academic calendar to be done by Thanksgiving, Illich said many of those dual-enrolled students chose not to take classes at the college's location in downtown Lincoln.
Enrollment in the career and technical programs, particularly at SCC's Milford campus, was up 7% in 2020 over the prior year, and up double digits this spring compared with spring 2020.
And students were eager to return to the new health sciences building that opened at SCC's 8800 O St. campus this semester.
"The need for those individuals did not go away during the pandemic," he said. "In fact, the need intensified, and it might have created a situation where more students are considering careers in things that are consistent and in demand irrespective of being in a pandemic."
Sims, who is searching for jobs and considering pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, said along with other students at Northeast, she's glad she made the decision to push forward with her education.
"I don't think our education changed at all, just the way it was presented changed," she said.
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