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College Presidents At The Helm In The Face of COVID

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

Dr. Marcia Conston

Dr. Marcia Conston

     The Presidents of Norfolk State  University (NSU) and Tidewater Community College (TCC)  have several interesting things in common these days.

      They are strong, Black female leaders of two large and diverse institutions of higher learning in Hampton Roads.

     They are the sixth presidents of their respective

institutions, and their tenures are relatively short ones.

     Both are tasked with raising money for their schools. Also they must sustain a viable enrollment and graduation rate and provide the resources to prepare their graduates  academically to be competitive in the nation’s job market.

     But in September of 2020, Presidents Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, of NSU and Dr. Marcia Conston of TCC are facing a new  school year, complicated by the threat of the COVID-19 virus  to students, faculty, and staff.

     While national health officials believe the infection rate is lowering, COVID-19 has had a mild resurgence in Hampton Roads.

     Adams-Gaston and Conston, like the leaders of Old Dominion, Christopher Newport, TNCC, Hampton, and other universities in the state are keeping a wary eye on their local infection rates.

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Over the past  two months, in orchestration with local, state and federal lawmakers, educational and health  officials,both leaders and their respective staffs and administrators devised a plan they hope will assure the  health and safety of their students, faculty and staffs.

     Already some universities that opened in early August have had to reverse course and suspend operations and in-person classes to review their reopening options.

    Two HBCUs—Hampton University and Virginia State University—will have only online learning  instruction this fall. UVA plans to offer online, face-to-face, and hybrid classes to the 24,000 students this fall.

    TCC’s fall semester started August 24, 2020. At that time, only performance-based courses  that cannot be delivered online were to be held face-to-face. All other courses were to be delivered remotely, minimizing the number of faculty and students on TCC’s four campuses.

Unlike NSU and ODU, none of TCC’s 30,000 plus students will be living  on any of the campuses.

     Most classes except for those which need on-hands labs and direct instruction, such as nursing and welding,  will have  in-person, socially distanced classes with face coverings and plexiglass where necessary, thereby separating students and instructors, Conston said.

     Dr.  Conston began her tenure as TCC’s President in January.

Conston has worked in higher education for more than 30 years.  She began her career as the Director of Institutional Research at an HBCU, Jackson State University, in Mississippi, in 1987.

  In 1994, at another HBCU, Benedict College in South Carolina, she was hired as Vice  President for Institutional Effectiveness.

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    In 2001, she became the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success Services at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina – the position  she held for nearly 20 years before she arrived in Norfolk.

  But the normal activities of her pre-pandemic reign at TCC were short-lived as she and other colleges and universities in the state shut down due to the threat posed by the virus in mid-March.

The school shifted to a mostly online system, a preview of today.

     Conston said the strength of her spiritual faith and

leadership, has enabled her  to “step in and lead an organization in crisis,” she told the GUIDE  via phone.

     “They look to leaders to pace the way,” she said, “and to lead by example at a critical time.”

  Conston said, “Back in January no one would have thought that COVID could have had such an impact on every aspect of America life, including attending and, running a college.”

  The NSU and TCC  leaders said they have devised plans and decisions to steer their schools to move forward in the midst of the pandemic storm.

     Conston said one of the  toughest decisions she had to make was closing the school to safeguard the lives and the health of thousands of students.

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Right now, Conston said she and her leadership team do not know the impact COVID-19 will have on future enrollment or the finances going forward.

Funding from the CARES Act enabled TCC and other schools to purchase Personal Protective Equipment  (PPE), supplies for staff and students who must  come to a building on campus.

For the neediest students, Conston said,  TCC  has expanded its financial aid and student support systems, especially related to virtual learning, access to campus facilities if needed, and other issues.

Students with laptops will be able to log on to enhanced WIFI and hotspot connections while sitting in parking lots.

Conston said  before  her inaugural spring semester  at TCC was short-circuited by the virus, she  was busy reaching out and interacting and networking with the community they serve.

She said she would find a way to resume that vital part of her mission in the coming months, safely in accordance with new social protocols.

She said that as the school year progresses, school leadership must “adjust” and be “nimble” enough to access the  curriculum  demands of students and the ability  of TCC to meet them.

    Despite  the vulnerability posed by the career,  more students will be lured into the healthcare field as safety protocols are put into place.

  Hospitality and restaurant industry employment demands have dropped as  COVID-19  has crushed   demands for tourism, dining out, and hotel patronage.

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     Other vocational options provided by TCC, such as  HVAC, welding, pipefitting, and truck driving  which are heavy in this region may see a rise in student interest.

***

After a  decade as Ohio State’s Senior Vice President for Student Life,  Adams-Gaston was hired as NSU

President last year.

During  the last week of August, NSU began  welcoming freshmen back to campus and upperclassmen on Sept, 2., according to Adams-Gaston.

There will be a mix of remote and online learning for the first two weeks of the semester and then a combination of hybrid face-to-face and online course offerings beginning Sept. 7.

All NSU students  are to be tested for COVID-19 as they arrive on campus.

NSU   is partnering with Thermo Fisher Scientific and Howard University (HU) at no cost to students “for testing, materials, transport, analyses, and results.”

Howard in Washington, D.C.,  will process NSU’s tests at its laboratories. NSU also is working with the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters to conduct

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initial testing for some students. The school is talking with Fort Norfolk Medical Associates to prepare for further COVID-19 testing capacity.

Students will be advised on social distancing and will be equipped with a packet of hand sanitizer, masks and other tools to deter the spread of the virus on campus.

On-campus testing of all students has begun on  “a staggered”  process.

Students without laptops to participate in online instruction will be provided one and the school will “ramp up its WIFI and  “hotspot” outlets to accommodate their needs.

Adams-Gaston said  she and her leadership team  have   “made hard decisions”  to assure the safety of the students which is a priority to  focus on academic work without distractions

       Fall Semester 2020 will be without the events many traditional HBCUs like NSU have long practiced. There will be no varsity sports, including Spartan football at Dick Price Stadium.

    Sports may be shifted to the spring and the NSU president says the school will coordinate that with MEAC.

   T he annual Spring Founder’s Day, Adams-Gaston said, will be held virtually instead of the traditional morning breakfast gathering.

    “I think  there will be many things that will be missed at an institution with such great traditions,” said Adams Gaston.

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“Traditions that bring people together like football and Founders Day. All of these things must be experienced virtually, but we are still Spartans.  They all matter  greatly and they will be important.”

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