The South Portland campus of Southern Maine Community College. Courtesy / Southern Maine Community College

BRUNSWICK/SOUTH PORTLAND — Southern Maine Community College will be holding in-person classes this fall, but concerns about the coronavirus pandemic are prompting a number of changes both to virtual and on-campus offerings.

The fall semester begins Aug. 31 for both the South Portland and Brunswick Landing campuses. While most in-person learning will be restricted to classwork that requires hands-on instruction, the school is offering its normal selection of classes.

SMCC Director of Communications Clarke Canfield was optimistic that the pandemic would not impact enrollments, although fall registration numbers were unavailable.

“We do expect some strong numbers in the fall,” Canfield said.

Southern Maine Community College’s Brunswick Landing campus. Courtesy / Southern Maine Community College

According to SMCC’s website, campuses are open, but building access is limited, in some cases by appointment-only. Residential students attending in-person instruction will be assigned single rooms at Spring Point Hall in South Portland and Orion Hall on the Midcoast Campus in Brunswick. Students are required to wear masks and maintain 6-foot social distancing. Dining facilities are available, with take-out and limited sit-down eating options. The campus bookstore will also be open, but limited to five customers at a time. Athletic competitions have been canceled for the fall, and the fitness centers on each campus are also closed.

The school is working to facilitate online classwork as much as possible, but Paul Charpentier, SMCC’s Dean of Academics, said school officials understand that some coursework simply must be conducted in person.

“Some courses, like plumbing, nursing, culinary arts — that’s tough to do on a Zoom call,” he said.

In those cases, the school is limiting class sizes to no more than 10 people, typically nine students and one instructor. Charpentier said some larger classes have been broken up into multiple, smaller offerings. The school is also hosting even smaller groups in larger rooms, to facilitate ventilation, he said.

For online classes, Charpentier said lectures are being livestreamed via conferencing software, and also by having instructors record lectures to be viewed by the students separately.

Charpentier acknowledged that there is a “gap” between online and in-person teaching, meaning students tend to perform better when learning in person, but new advances in technology in recent years has changed that.

“We’ve managed, over the years, to close that gap,” he said.

Online offerings are not new for the school. Charpentier said SMCC has had classwork available by conferencing for more than 20 years. In a typical year, he said,  as many as 4,000 students will make use of both online and in-person instruction, and there are even two associate-level degrees — liberal studies and business administration — that are taught entirely online.

Matthew Goodman, Dean of Academic Excellence and Strategic Initiatives, also teaches English at SMCC. He said online classwork has risen by as much as one-third in recent years, so online learning will not be foreign to students.

“There’s still familiarity from the students’ perspective and the faculty’s perspective,” he said.

Goodman acknowledged, however, that online classwork is less personal.

“I don’t feel like I’m as dynamic online as opposed to in person,” he said.

Katie Sibole has been an instructor with the college’s Community and New Media Studies Department for the past 20 years. She said in a typical year, two-thirds of her courses already have an online component, making the transition to heavier online learning easier.

“It hasn’t been a major struggle to shift entirely online,” she said.

However, she said, there is more of a personal disconnect. The challenge now, she said, is to build a connection with new students online. That said, Sibole added, solving problems is “a really big part of the mission of the school,” and media professionals are used to adapting to changing circumstances, so she said the pandemic could provide an instructive challenge for students.

Ayreal Ziegler, 31, is a senior at the school now. She is one of Sibole’s students, but also has a second major in horticulture, so she needs to do some of her classwork in person. She said she is still spending a lot more time online, which can be less engaging.

“It’s just disappointing,” she said. “I love being on campus.”

Ziegler said she understood why online teaching has to happen, calling SMCC “responsible” for making that decision, but she said incoming freshmen could have some trouble. Ziegler has already met most of her instructors in person, so she has had the chance to make that personal bond, which will be tougher for new students to do.

“Those connections are key,” she said.

Madeline Rheaume, 21, is another one of Sibole’s students, finishing up her degree with some summer coursework. She said she remembered when the college campus had to close down this spring, but from a technical perspective, it was pretty seamless.

“We were able to transfer all of my classes online,” she said.

But it wasn’t ideal. Rheaume said she liked the change of scenery, moving from room to room, and even building to building, between classes. Now, she simply closes one window on her computer at home and opens another. She called the experience “a little disappointing,” but acknowledged that the pandemic has forced this to become the new reality for everyone, including the faculty and staff.

“You just put the best effort forward that you can, and I think everybody did that.”

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.