Along with 14 other community colleges around Massachusetts, Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield will not require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall semester. WAMC spoke with college president Ellen Kennedy about why she signed on to a letter outlining the policy and more.
KENNEDY: We are hard at work are thinking about already having plans put in place for this summer and next fall, and even what looks what the spring looks like. So we're working really closely with our faculty, and we're putting obviously our students at the center of all of our decision making. One of the transitions that we're all making in higher education is no longer thinking about making students college ready, but making the college student ready. I think that's a really important concept. In Massachusetts, we're really fortunate that the legislature and the governor supported this, developed a program called SUCCESS. And it stands for the Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services. And that's a concept of not just putting, thinking about retention and keeping students, but actually making sure that they're persisting into a program that will lead to a certificate or degree. And we're really looking closely at closing equity gaps for our students.
WAMC: You signed onto a letter with 14 other community colleges about not requiring a vaccine mandate for students returning. Can you break down for me what exactly the letter lays out and why you signed on to it?
We think there are many very important reasons why everyone should be vaccinated, and we are doing our best. So it's our role in our communities to educate people about why they should be doing that. We do see in many communities across Massachusetts a struggle for some individuals to get that vaccine. There can be cultural reasons that people are not pursuing them. There can be all kinds of issues keeping people from getting their vaccine, and we don't want that to stop our students from enrolling. A lot of times our students are from those communities. So we looked at it as an important and urgent need to receive the vaccine, but the requiring it of our students seemed to potentially put, make college a difficult opportunity.
You mentioned doing work to close the equity gap in education in the state and here in Berkshire County. What exactly is BCC doing to address that gap?
We're looking at all of our practices, looking at everything we do with an equity lens. Some of our policies and practices are geared to a very different students than the ones who attend our college and where we're looking at every single thing, every practice, every policy. Who's getting our scholarships at the college? How are our practices? Do we see the, you know, grade distributions? Do we see financial aid? Do we see everything happening as it should happen? And what populations are we reaching? So we're working really hard, looking at, for example, what's the breakdown of students who leave after the first semester with no credits from the college? Is that is that representative of our entire college population? Are there certain populations that aren't doing as well as others? So looking at every single thing we do.
Now, BCC has hosted a vaccine clinic in the Paterson Field House. What has that experience been like having part of the campus be utilized in the front line of the vaccine rollout here in the state?
It’s really been a huge point of pride for the campus. And we are so privileged to be supporting the efforts of the Berkshire Alliance and all of their great work. I think this is a moment for the Berkshires to shine. It shows our collaborative approach to all that happens, the community needs. All the egos were set aside. The campus, we were so fortunate yesterday, Governor Baker was with us and able to see all of this in action, I think surprised a little bit at the size of our effort in Berkshire County and all of the partners that have come together to make all this happen. I don't think they see that in as many other communities across the Commonwealth. So we were really proud to play that role. And it just establishes once again how Berkshire Community College is at the table, is a partner in all of the urgent needs of our community.
Looking at the broader impact of the economic component of the pandemic, going into the middle and the rest of 2021, where does the college stand financially? And what can the state legislature do to support community colleges like BCC during this tumultuous time?
We've been so fortunate with funding at this moment. The governor put forward a budget last year that, he had started with the budget and then we assumed it would be reduced, and then he came through with a level budget which was really crucial to us. The federal funds have been really important to our outreach and ability to support students and help our students meet their needs beyond what they're experiencing in their college financial requirements, but in their personal lives, helping them address some of those issues. And we, as I mentioned earlier, the SUCCESS Fund, the governor established a GEER program, the Governor's Emergency Education Relief fund that helped us allow students in high schools to take dual enrollment, classes that count for high school and college credit. We saw a huge increase in our local students taking courses online, with the campus, and a few in person. We don't have as much in person right now. But we're thrilled with an uptick in that. We were able to use funds to renovate spaces. We're going to be relaunching our culinary and hospitality program this fall, and we have some funds for that. And we're hopeful that we'll receive another grant in that area. We're hoping for some federal funds to increase our simulation labs at the college for our nursing program, and we'll be introducing a full second cohort in nursing come next spring. So this summer, we're offering some additional pre-nursing courses. We're also about to run a Heroes Program that, BCC educates your local heroes, and we have all kinds of programs from criminal justice and human services, early education, nursing, physical therapy assistant, respiratory therapy, all those programs that put our heroes in our community. Those people are mostly educated at Berkshire Community College. So, doing all that we can to support the economic revitalization, the resurgence that will come from when we leave this pandemic.