TUPELO • As the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on, the adult education programs at both Itawamba Community College and Northeast Mississippi Community College have continued to educate students despite necessary changes the virus has caused.

Julia Houston, ICC’s Adult Education Director since 2014, said the program typically serves between 800 and 1,000 students per year. They operate on an open entry and open exit basis rather than by semester, so students can start and finish high school equivalency (GED and HiSET) and other adult education courses on their own schedule.

“People could start today and finish in two weeks,” Houston said. “They could start at 2 in the afternoon and finish whenever. We GED test every day, one night a week and one Saturday a month.”

Laurie Kesler, NEMCC’s Director of Adult Education, said the college’s adult education program typically serves around 1,200 students each year.

Reanna Stasney is a 2020 NEMCC Adult Education graduate. She started the program in fall 2019 after being homeschooled her entire life. Stasney struggled with some subjects, like math, in an online setting, so she enrolled in the Corinth Smart Start class last year at 17 and worked closely with DeAnne Smith, Smart Start Instructor/Gateway Career Specialist at NEMCC Corinth.

She completed the Gateway Youth Program, enrolled in the MI-BEST program, and has since enrolled as a full-time student in the Automotive Mechanics program. She’s currently in her second semester of the two-year associate degree program.

“It’s a really good place to be if you’re in any situation where you have to get your (high school equivalency),” Stasney said of NEMCC’s adult education program. “They make it really easy.”

Both colleges’ programs offer an array of options for adult learners beyond GED testing – from ACT WorkKeys, which consist of assessments and curriculum that measure workplace skills and increase opportunities for career changes and advancement; to MI-BEST, an innovative training program to prepare individuals who need help with foundational skills for careers by mixing career and technical training to earn college credits with additional support for math, writing and reading inside the classroom as they work towards their GED.

Although both schools’ adult education programs have been around for decades – ICC’s was founded in the late 1960s, and NEMCC’s program began in 1975 – they’ve never faced a challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic. Both programs have seen the number of students enrolled in adult education classes drop significantly since the virus began to spread in mid-March, and classes were forced to move temporarily to an online-only format. Reasons for the decline range from prospective students having to stay at home to take care of children or a lack of access to WiFi or cellular service for online classes.

Kesler said NEMCC was already adding an online-only option for adult learners when the pandemic began, but it forced them to make the switch immediately.

“We were just really getting on board, but this pushed us to 100% go for it,” Kesler said. “Our instructors stepped up and hit the ground running. They did really well with the challenge.”

The college is now offering face-to-face, hybrid and online-only classes for adult learners to accommodate students in any way needed, Kesler said.

Rachel Norman, adult education instructor at NEMCC’s Corinth campus, said working through the COVID-19 pandemic has forced instructors to think differently about the way they educate students.

“What has happened with the pandemic has changed adult ed in ways that will be beneficial in the future because it has made us get outside of our little box,” Norman said. “It’s caused us to go beyond the boundaries we had before and think about how to be more accessible to people.”

Social media played an important role in staying connected with students, Kesler said. The “Northeast Mississippi Community College – Adult Education” Facebook page was updated daily with communication to students while the college was shut down in late spring.

Kesler said social media has been essential to the program during the pandemic.

“We post lessons there so they can work on them at their own time through the links that we provide. That contact, it’s just so crucial,” she said.

Similarly, ICC has always offered some distance options for adult learners, Houston said, but they had never offered a 100% online option prior to March.

As of mid-October, students are back in the classroom wearing masks and following social distancing protocols, but they still have the option to enroll in hybrid or online-only classes if they’d like.

Students often inquire about taking solely online classes before meeting ICC’s teachers and realizing they can finish the program much faster in person.

“Once a student meets us, they typically prefer to come to class,” Houston said. “Once they see how the teachers have set up their classrooms and how clean and spaced out everything is – we haven’t had anybody complain about the way our classrooms are restructured. We’ve done everything to accommodate and make everybody feel safe.”

And sometimes all it takes is a simple phone call to bring a student back after they’ve fallen away, as some did towards the start of the pandemic, according to ICC Belden Center’s lead adult education instructor Linzy Patterson.

Patterson said the former students they call often become future students after their conversation.

“They’ll pick up the phone and we’ll say ‘Hey this is Mr. Patterson at ICC’ and they’ll say “You know what? I’m glad you called. I do need to get back in there,’” Patterson said. “Our students are just like everybody else, as far as needing a little bit of motivation every now and then. They have their own life that’s going on that creates some trials.”

He said students often walk in “kind of beat down,” but eventually leave with not only their high school equivalency but with “a bunch of notches in their belt.”

“We try to offer them just about anything they can do to have some marketable skills when they leave here,” Patterson said.

The adult education programs at both community colleges pay their students’ testing fees.

And at ICC’s Belden Center, the adult education program also pays for Tupelo Transit tickets to get to and from classes and students who attend during the daytime eat free because of the culinary arts program housed in the same building, Houston said.

Kesler said most people may not realize all adult education encompasses and the sheer number of people served by their programs. But adult education goes beyond helping a student earn their GED; it includes job and certification training and courses to help students enroll in college classes.

“We set goals as soon as the student walks in our door,” Kesler said. “We want them to leave with as many credentials as possible to make them more employable.”

blake.alsup@journalinc.com

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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