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NCCC faculty and students ‘roll with the punches’ amid pandemic

SARANAC LAKE — For many schools, the fall 2020 semester has been less a return to classes and more a reboot of an entirely new system.

At North Country Community College, most of the learning is being done remotely rather than at its three campuses in Saranac Lake, Malone and Ticonderoga. The residences and dining halls are closed, and all sports have been suspended. Nonetheless, this fall 804 students have enrolled, up from 769 a year ago.

Only a few programs have allowed in-person instruction, with only students in the Radiologic Technology and Massage Therapy programs coming to campus on a regular basis, and then only then once they’ve been tested. (Those students also submit to regular pooled surveillance testing.) The newspaper checked in with two instructors, Becky LaDue, director of the Radiologic Technology program, and Marcus Painter, a mathematics instructor, and three students to see how the semester has been going.

As her department is one of the few doing in-person instruction, LaDue’s first month has been hectic. The Rad Tech department does live lectures through Blackboard, a SUNY learning platform, Monday through Thursday, and on Friday it does in-person learning in the lab — an energized X-ray lab necessary in the field.

“As instructors, we’re feeling the immense pressure and lack of time,” said LaDue, who has been with NCCC since 2004, about the difficulty of cramming in-person lab work into one day every week. “But we understand our students are also feeling the overwhelming pressure. It’s a lot to pack into our Friday schedule.” In previous years, students would spend five hours every week in the lab, something that’s impossible to do now.

“It’s a bit more intense for our freshmen students,” she said, for whom this is the introduction to college learning.

“Going back to school during this pandemic at first was very nerve-wracking for me,” said Coryn Young, 19, a freshman Rad Tech student from Norwood. “The adjustment to this type of instruction has been difficult; however, Becky and Scott (Stringer) have made the transition easier than I thought it would be. We all look forward to being on campus on Fridays to get the hands-on education we anticipated.”

Painter, who is in his third year at NCCC, teaches his math classes entirely remotely, using YouTube videos he creates that cover sections of assigned text and are accompanied by prepared note packets. He also uses a homework and test management program that allows students to do coursework online with instant feedback. Painter also uses a third program, called Blackboard Learn, which has a live interaction component.

To supplement the three programs, Painter uses cameras that show him, his workspace and his computer screen, as well as a headset with a microphone for audio.

“For the fall semester, every interaction has been virtual,” said Painter, who has set up live sessions during the week to discuss the material with his students. “I do this for each of my six courses, so 12 live sessions a week,” he said.

LaDue also uses Blackboard — it’s the primary software NCCC uses for managing virtual classrooms — and YouTube, as well as PowerPoint presentations.

“I have a lot more ‘open’ time during my labs in order for the students to ask questions, understand the material and feel comfortable with one another through the virtual world,” she said. She has also started using online polls and break-out rooms through Blackboard. She credits colleague Scott Stringer with tech help, as well as her teenage children.

“During our lab experience for the hands-on learning, we are able to learn in small groups of four while wearing masks and face shields,” said Lauren Cummings, 27, of Gansevoort, another freshman in the Rad Tech department. “One positive aspect about the live lectures and video demonstrations is it allows for us to re-watch all lectures and videos at any time.” Cummings credits LaDue and Stringer with being available “through all hours of the day.”

Painter enlisted his wife to test out various virtual formats and to see which ones worked best before settling on the software he used.

“She would pretend to be a student and work with me, in a virtual capacity, from another room in our home,” said Painter.

LaDue’s 14 sophomore students are now off-campus, conducting clinical rotations at hospitals and clinical sites throughout the North Country. Though those students’ courses are taught online, they are spending 32 hours a week in clinical rotation, completing their required competencies for the program.

One of the biggest challenges for both instructors has been trying to establish relationships with new students.

“When we went remote in the spring, we already had a chance to build rapport with the students through an in-person setting,” said Painter. “For the fall semester, every interaction has been virtual.” It’s been a dramatic shift for Painter, who had never taught an online course before NCCC made the shift to virtual instruction last spring.

But Painter said he’s learned a lot and would even consider teaching online classes once the pandemic is over.

“It’s certainly been challenging, especially for the teachers having to rework their entire curriculum,” said Sean Ryan, 27, a freshman Rad Tech student from Bloomingdale. Ryan is a graduate of Saranac Lake High School, a former Marine and an emergency medical technician as well as a NCCC student. “It’s really been seamless,” said Ryan of the transition to online instruction. “If I have questions, I know they’ll make time for me at 7 in the morning,” he said.

“In March, when the pandemic first hit, our current sophomore students were friends,” said LaDue. “It’s been difficult to get that closeness that occurs within our program in a typical year, as we haven’t been able to develop and grow as a cohort, given the lack of face-to-face time.”

“There have been a few minor technology-related hiccups, both on my end and on the students’ ends,” said Painter. These have mostly involved internet access. “I’ve had students who needed to adjust to power outages, routers breaking and bandwidth issues, to name a few.”

To help with the shift to nearly all-virtual learning, NCCC has provided more than 50 loaner laptops and dispersed over $350,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds to students.

“You must roll with the punches,” said LaDue about the current teaching environment. “The learning process may be a bit slower without the use of equipment all day,” she said, highlighting the further complication of teaching without a physical classroom.

“As with all teachers and professors nationwide, there’s no certainty of structure during this pandemic,” said LaDue.

“It’s all about flexibility right now,” said Ryan.