Wisconsin technical colleges mobilize against COVID-19

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By Sara Mackey

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Image of COVID virus
It’s amazing how much things change in a matter of weeks or even days. We’re all experiencing a previously abstract concept — a pandemic — most of us never expected to actually witness. Known as COVID-19, the novel Corona Virus has moved around the globe quickly and ravenously. It is testing our institutions, challenging systems and exposing weaknesses nationally and in our state’s infrastructure, broadband and healthcare systems. Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges and the Wisconsin Technical College System Administrative offices are suddenly in the middle of a public health crisis.

Public health officials told Wisconsin residents in early March the largest difference we as a community could make is to implement social distancing. In practical terms, this would keep most people at home unless they needed to go out for medical appointments or to pick up groceries or medications. All non-essential businesses will close temporarily to keep the number of highly contagious infections down and protect limited hospital resources. In late March, Governor Evers issued a “Safer at Home resolution.” Most of Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges, along with other higher education institutions extended spring break to a second week to allow the instructors to move their curriculum completely online. Meanwhile, technical support at the colleges ramped up available online services and infrastructure to handle the increased bandwidth required by an all-online initiative. The colleges are not immune from the order that all but essential workers need to stay home. This forced tough decisions about the health and well being of students, faculty and staff. Following guidance from the Governor’s office, as well as the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Wisconsin’s technical colleges put the safety of students and employees first in the decision to suspend in-person classes and operations.

Once that landmark decision was made, the colleges immediately rushed to move most if not all classes online so students could continue their education with limited interference. This was a feat in itself, especially when you consider the hands-on nature of many of the technical and career-oriented classes. But in most cases, there are simulations that mimic some of the challenges and situations students might find on the job so they can study and complete course work, gaining virtual experience until campuses open again. The colleges are continuing to find ways to meet students’ expectations for student services while adding some non-conventional services as well.

The colleges are rising to the challenge, as they so often do, to meet the needs of their communities. Not just within their own student community, with moving classes online, but providing the necessary support services: advising, financial aid, technical, and many more services to assist students, faculty, staff and the general public endure this crisis.

Madison College President Jack Daniels demonstrated calm and leadership in a recent message to students: “In a world of uncertainty, you can be certain of one thing – our entire college community is behind you, and more committed than ever to helping you reach your professional goals.” He continued, “This experience will cause you to personally grow in ways not imagined in January when the semester began.”

Realizing many of the campus locations, as well as students’ homes, are in rural areas with limited internet access, several colleges offered students access to the college’s Wi-Fi from their vehicles in the college parking lots. Several instructors have also copped to doing this, to preserve each student's opportunity to continue learning in an online capacity, uninhibited by a paltry connection on the instructor's part. 

Lakeshore Technical College (LTC) also provided free Wi-Fi at its two campuses. LTC President Paul Carlsen said, “With everyone facing an abundance of challenges right now, we will do our best at LTC to share any resources we have that can help the community and our students.” Northcentral Technical College (NTC) has also offered their Wi-Fi to students. At Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC), the college has kept their Wi-Fi going so that students could keep up with classes and schoolwork from their vehicles. In addition, the college has secured a number of iPads with keyboards and some laptops that students can rent or rent-to-own once they request them online. Staff is on hand limited hours to distribute the equipment.

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Admissions representative video conference
A Blackhawk Technical College admissions representative connects with students virtually.
Most campuses have also moved their advising services online, so students can continue to plan for future semesters and still feel like they have the attention and support of campus staff. Blackhawk Technical College is also offering online services, in addition to telephone, email and virtual appointments. The process of applying for enrollment and financial aid are also available online. 

Northcentral Technical College (NTC) is offering a free, online only babysitting class in response to a growing need for childcare providers. The class is available to anyone aged 13 or older who may be in charge of caring for siblings during the Safer at Home Order. Brandy Breuckman, Dean of NTC’s School of Business, Community Services and Virtual College said, “We need to equip those who are watching over children with the necessary knowledge to provide childcare safely.” Families wanting to take the class but without home internet access can access the college’s Wi-Fi from the NTC parking lot.

Several colleges have initiated, through their foundations, a chance for students to apply for an emergency assistance grant, to help fund their education and meet daily needs. As many students have lost their jobs temporarily or permanently, the decision to continue their education becomes that much more difficult, given the cost and other commitments involved. Nicolet College Foundation Executive Director Heather Schallock said, “Our goal is to help the students outside the classroom with their most urgent need in an emergency like this, and help them successfully complete this semester.” Nicolet College, as well as a number of the Wisconsin technical colleges, is accepting online donations toward the emergency grants for students.

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Food donated by Madison College

Food donated to the local food pantry

As long as the colleges won't be in session (face-to-face) for potentially weeks, the lack of students on campus means a number of items the colleges had would be unused and could be repurposed or donated to help communities struggling to meet various needs. Madison College, for example had food from the student food pantry, as well as food from the culinary department that might have gone to waste had they not donated it to the River Food Pantry in Madison. Two vans made three trips between campus and the food pantry to drop off 3,755 pounds of food, including entire wheels of cheese. The food pantry then used some of the food to prepare and deliver lunches to the food-insecure children in the community who might have otherwise had lunch at their school, had it remained in session. Gateway Technical College also donated nearly 400 pounds of food from its Culinary Arts program to an area non-profit to help those affected by COVID-19. Terry Simmons, Gateway’s Dean of Protective and Human Services said, “We knew we had food that could not be used for the rest of the semester and started to brainstorm on what the best use for that specific food would be to help others.”

Western Technical College in the La Crosse area has a campus food pantry that typically serves 200 students each month. Since the campus is no longer a destination for students, the college created a pop-up food pantry for students in need. The packages offer several meals’ worth of groceries plus some hygiene products and gift cards for perishable foods like milk and cheese from local grocery stores. The college is distributing the goods via curbside pickup where staff, with disposable gloves and hand sanitizer, bring the food out to the students’ vehicles so they don’t need to enter the building. Amy Thornton, Vice President of student service and engagement at Western said that the students’ entire well-being is as important as anything else. “Not only do they need support in being successful in college through tutoring or academic supports, but also non-academic support,” she continued.

Another way Western Technical College is supporting the community is by having volunteer nursing students run a call center to help connect people with health officials or ask questions about the virus. The nursing students may be able to answer questions about symptoms or direct callers to the health department.

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photo of Mike Christman, MATC instructor

Mike Christman, MATC instructor

One of the vulnerabilities exposed in the national healthcare system is the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). These masks, gowns, face shields and other protective layers need to be changed often, but given the vast number of potentially infected patients in the hospitals and clinics, there are not enough supplies. Therefore, a number of the colleges were able to donate significant quantities of PPE since there would not be an immediate need for them on campus. Because COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory virus, many of the patients require ventilators in more serious cases, which are in limited supply at most hospitals. A number of colleges have also loaned their respirators for use during this crisis. In Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) alone donated $270,000 worth of protective gear and ventilators to area hospitals. Many of the colleges have done the same thing in their communities.  

Mid-State Technical College has donated many PPE supplies, as well as health and hygiene supplies. The college also loaned 3D printers to help create additional PPE and organized a fund to help support healthcare workers. In addition to the healthcare supplies contributions, the cosmetology programs contributed hygienic supplies as well. The 3D printers produced reusable face masks and face shields for local healthcare workers. Colleen Kane, Mid-State’s dean of the School of Health and School of Protective Services explained that this is “an opportunity to share what we have to support our community partners in this emergency response.”

Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC), in support of its local medical facilities, gathered more than 58,000 pieces of PPE for local healthcare workers. The equipment included gloves, masks, goggles, shields, gowns, and more. Blackhawk Technical College also donated PPE and various supplies, along with hospital beds from its nursing program for local health facilities. The beds will help prepare for the expected increase of patients due to COVID-19. 

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Hospital beds donated by Blackhawk

Hospital beds en route to local facilities.

Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) in Rice Lake, also donated a large supply of PPE and offered their ambulances to the City of Rice Lake Fire Department for a potential influx of service calls. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) loaned eight ventilators and two non-invasive ventilators, plus several boxes of supplies to their area hospitals. Gateway Technical College put their own 3D printers to work fabricating various PPE items, including masks and face shields. They also shared the designs with anyone wanting them for their own 3D printing efforts. John Zehren, who leads the "Fab Lab" at Gateway, said "I've had emails from people who aren't even Gateway students who have printers, who want to help."  

The complexity and dramatic nature of this situation is heightened by the highly contagious nature of the virus. In addition to the high volume of PPE needed, the colleges are coming up with other creative solutions to help maximize the response. In some cases, campuses can offer additional space needed for recovery and cleaning and sterilizing of emergency vehicles and equipment. For example, at the Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) West Eau Claire campus, the Fire Safety Center has been set up with stations for emergency vehicle cleaning and sanitation. Given that these vehicles are in high demand at the moment, they need to be turned around quickly. CVTC is also lending squad cars and ambulances to increase the number of COVID-19 patients the region could transport to isolation facilities.

Under the category of general community support, Mid-State Technical College stepped in on Election Day, April 7, to serve as a local polling place, allowing more physical space for social distancing. The original polling location was a residential care facility for elderly people, who are one of the highest-risk groups for COVID-19 exposure and resulting complications. The move to the Mid-State campus improved the safety of those residents and potential voters to maintain greater distance between other voters. 

Meanwhile, addressing a more modest need, a Moraine Park Technical College cosmetology instructor took to Facebook where she produced and posted an instructional video. Using sped-up video, the instructor provided quick tips for working with hair that, thanks to social distancing, may not have seen a hair stylist for weeks to months. While arguably among the lighter subjects our colleges have tackled, it's still one that many of us are struggling with, if you consider the number of memes on Facebook about "COVID hair." It's also a symbol of how important our communities are to the Wisconsin Technical Colleges. No matter is too large or too small - our colleges stand ready to help their students, their communities, and those in need.

This post is meant to highlight some of the many ways Wisconsin technical colleges have responded during a pandemic the likes of which none of us has ever seen. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it demonstrates the many ways our colleges have offered their resources and creative efforts to help our communities. Find additional updates and the latest Wisconsin technical college or Wisconsin Technical College System news here.