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V3I2: Access to Education During the Pandemic

By: Alexandra Fitts, Vice Provost, Accreditation Liaison Officer & Dean of General Studies, University of Alaska Fairbanks

When COVID-19 caused institutions across the country to shift the way they were providing education to students, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) faced some unique challenges. UAF serves 21 locations around the state, from full-fledged campuses to learning centers, research stations and outreach sites.

Alaska’s population is spread thinly across America’s largest state. And while Alaskans are served by a world-class university, they are supported by an unevenly developed infrastructure. Four of UAF’s campuses have no road access at all. Approximately 400 miles of roadless land separates Fairbanks from the campuses in Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham and Bethel.

Many of the communities that UAF serves do not have reliable internet service. In Fairbanks, roughly two-thirds of UAF’s Fairbanks-based staff reported not being able to access adequate internet to conduct a Zoom meeting. UAF has responded by loaning equipment, including wireless hotspots, and creating low-bandwidth distance course options.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, like most universities, UAF flipped classes to distance delivery within a week and sent most residential students home. But UAF serves many students, including rural and international students who could not go home because of travel restrictions, as well as students who are homeless or come from a home that is not safe. UAF learned early on in the pandemic that it would need to remain residential so that its students would have electricity, water, sewer, internet and safety.

UAF Principles of Marketing instructor Tammy Tragis-McCook introduces herself to her new students during the first day of instruction Aug. 24, 2020, on the Troth Yeddha’ campus. Students in the class had the option of taking the class fully online or attending in person. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

The university also made a number of academic adjustments to allow students to complete their disrupted semester in the most successful way possible. Among these, the use of Deferred grades (similar to Incompletes) was expanded and the withdrawal deadline was extended. Students who withdrew due to COVID-19 were able to request a credit on their tuition to apply to the following semester.

UAF faculty immediately worked to move more than 1,000 courses to an array of modalities that would allow students to start the fall semester and create equity with inclusive course offerings. Summer 2020 was busy, as the eCampus’ iTeachU program trained 92 faculty over four to six weeks in a cohort-based workshop to help them get started building their courses.

UAF eCampus, in collaboration with the Provost Faculty Development Team and the Faculty Development and Improvement Committee, also launched the Faculty Learning Community (FLC) that brought faculty together from across UAF to study and create shareable resources for distance delivery.

Some classes are not easily adapted to online learning, so in-person classes like this one in pottery are adapted with lower enrollment, mask-wearing and physical distancing. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

UAF includes the Community and Technical College (CTC), which has many courses that require hands-on training such as the welding program, firefighter academy, aviation maintenance, certified nurse aide and dental assisting program. To keep all of these programs running smoothly, UAF offered parts of these courses via Zoom or videoconferencing, and also set up protocols to allow in-person instruction with hands-on learning that maintained the safety of students, faculty and staff. Some of this was done through staggered schedules, physical distancing, additional personal protective equipment and regular health checks.

As fall registration approached, UAF created a matrix to guide students as they navigated their way through courses and the options that best fit their needs. In developing our modality range of face-to-face, online, blended, hybrid, distance and “high-flex,” courses the university focused on equity and student access.

With mental health and student equity in mind, UAF began providing additional student health and counseling support through virtual appointment services, virtual health and counseling programs, and for those students who test positive for COVID-19, delivering care baskets and providing regular check-ins to students requiring isolation. The university awarded more than $300,000 in COVID-19-related emergency scholarships for students affected by the pandemic. These scholarships helped to cover everything from upgraded internet to a plane ticket home.

The focus on students’ mental health continues into fall. The Associated Students of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (ASUAF) has made it a priority, according to President Riley von Borstel. “The mental health of our students here at UAF is already a topic of interest due to the challenging environment in which we are living and learning, but now with the pandemic, it is even more so… That is why one of my missions for this school year is to put students’ mental health first and think of creative ways to give them the college experience we are longing for.”

Like everyone, UAF was unsure what to expect for fall 2020 enrollment, but was pleased to see that its efforts to support students and stay flexible were paying off. Enrollment data shows an increase of about 3.4% in new undergraduate students and 4.1% in new first-year students at the Fairbanks campus and a jump of more than 21% in new graduate students. In fall 2020 UAF also saw its highest fall-to-fall retention percentage in over a decade.

About 700 students chose to live on campus, all in single rooms or family housing. UAF’s testing and safety protocols have worked well: a total of 89 faculty, staff, contractors working on campus, or students have tested positive since March. The university set aside a residence hall for isolation of COVID-19-positive students, but at present only 1% of the isolation space is in use.

Approximately 75% of the fall student credit hours are being taken by distance in fall 2020. These courses are everything from asynchronous distance, to synchronous video delivery, or hybrid and high-flex delivery. Students and faculty in face-to-face classes maintain safe distances and masks are mandatory in all UAF buildings.

UAF’s eCampus personnel were instrumental in helping transform most of the university’s in-person classes to online education in a matter of days.

UAF also stayed engaged in research being conducted around the globe. For example, with recommended COVID-19 safety measures in place to provide students, faculty and staff with the guidance required during the pandemic, the university was able to continue research on the Sikuliaq, a 261-foot, ice-capable ship owned by NSF and operated by UAF. The Sikuliaq was the only ship in the UNOLS fleet that was allowed to sail during the initial months of the pandemic.

UAF’s response to COVID-19 was based on its strategic goal of respect, diversity, inclusion and caring. Providing equity among students required an early commitment to mitigate risk and keep open the educational space that students need. While the future of the pandemic remains unpredictable, UAF remains committed to safety and success for all students.



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