By Jim Snyder, SIPI HSE Instructor
Note from the editor: This blog post was written in November 2020, but could not be published at the time due to required and delayed external permissions. We are publishing it now to share SIPI’s perspective and experience of HSE programming during the pandemic.
Students in Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute’s (SIPI) High School Equivalency program spent the first half of the Spring 2020 term busy studying to earn their HSE diplomas. COVID-19 was in the international news, but it seemed like a faraway ailment that would not be an issue for our college.
In mid-March 2020, however, as we were scheduling students for HSE exams, the first few COVID-19 cases began to appear in New Mexico. Within a week, local high schools closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The following week the SIPI administration sent all students home before the virus could impact our community and their families, in accordance with the New Mexico Public Health Emergency Order. This two-week break was thought to be a short interruption in our normal trimester. The end of March break also allowed SIPI faculty time to move to online instruction.
Our HSE students’ home locations ranged from all over the southwest and to the western mountains and up to North Dakota. As they were packing to go home, the SIPI HSE program assured them that when they made it home, they would have a device to access online content. Tablet computers, originally intended as awards for completion of HSE diplomas, were given to students who had no other tools to access the internet.
Once back at home, most students re-established contact with SIPI as our program materials were made available online. HSE students continued preparing to test for their diplomas. In April 2020, there were still hopes that the pandemic shutdown would only temporarily delay HSE testing. Many of the test centers had tentatively scheduled HSE assessment tests in the next month with plans to re-open within a few weeks.
SIPI cancelled its 2020 graduation ceremony due to the pandemic. Many HSE students from the 2019-20 graduation year had already purchased their caps and gowns and family invitations to the program. These events became virtual and we did our best to recognize individual successes in hopes that, at some point in the future, we would have a grand public commencement.
As spring turned into summer, it became apparent that a return to the normalcy of in-person classes would not be possible. The SIPI HSE program therefore increased the level of technical support by assisting students with access to the internet and increasing the distribution of laptop computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to improve their ability to connect and turn in regular work. SIPI also waived all tuition and fees to encourage students to continue their HSE program. All aspects of the program were adjusted to make virtually interactive assessments possible.
During the summer 2020 term, a few new students matriculated into the HSE program as SIPI mailed support materials to our distance learning students. Both the TABE and HiSET assessments were modified so that students could complete them from home, opening a new path for students to complete testing remotely. SIPI continued its curricula content online during the summer, making adjustments and distance learning delivery improvements to better serve HSE students. New software and computer-aided instruction resources were acquired to improve students’ distance learning experiences.
By summer’s end, the impossibility of SIPI returning to in-person classes during the Fall 2020 term became apparent. Recognizing that another online term was inevitable, SIPI looked to recruit and then provide internet connection resources to potential students and students who had previously left SIPI in the past few years prior to completing their HSE certification. When the Fall 2020 term began online, there were both new students and several returning students attending the virtual HSE classes. SIPI was able to provide all HSE students with a laptop and a Wi-Fi hotspot, textbooks/eBooks, and PPE to help them deal with the pandemic. There was also limited in-person testing for the HiSET test at some test locations around the state. Several students took advantage of this opportunity to complete their HSE assessments.
Because of the generous funding of the College Fund’s Dollar General grant, the SIPI HSE program was able to send another shipment of COVID Care packages with PPE and hygiene supplies to help students stay safe as they continued their studies. Further, SIPI was able to hire Dr. Ben White as a tutor/mentor to the HSE students. Dr. White has been helping the HSE students with regular weekly check-ins and increasing personal contact beyond contact with their academic coach to include personal emotional coaching. SIPI hopes that this will assist students during this distressing time, while keeping them hopeful of their academic achievement and planning for positive opportunities through and after the pandemic.
As the Fall 2020 term closed, SIPI determined that the Spring 2021 term would also be conducted completely online. We continue to increase our student support mechanisms and have already been in contact with many new students who intend to pursue their HSE diplomas in the upcoming trimester. We continue to increase support for our students as they pursue their education online and to meet their needs as remote students. We make it a priority to continue to have SIPI faculty and staff listening and responding to students’ academic, technical, and emotional needs. Although it has been a frustrating time for everyone, so many of our HSE students have persevered. SIPI’s hope is that when we look back on this time, we will see many SIPI HSE-certified students who prepared for a post-pandemic workforce having paved the way to enduring careers and lifelong commitments to learning.