Community college classes are canceled or moving online through the end of the month as COVID-19 spreads in North Carolina.

N.C. Community College System president Peter Hans has advised colleges to make plans to keep classes online for at least eight weeks, or until the end of the semester. Colleges say they might extend the spring term into the summer, giving students a chance to complete labs and workforce training that can’t be done online. 

Community colleges are following the state’s strategy of social distancing. Gov. Roy Cooper shut down K-12 public schools on Monday, March 16, for at least two weeks. He closed restaurants except for take-out and delivery. Gatherings of more than 100 people are banned. There were more than 70 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in N.C. on Wednesday, March 18.

The community college system serves 700,000 students across 58 colleges each year. Almost a third of community college education already happens online. Community college leaders say they are trying to move as much online as possible, but not all classes will be able to make the transition. 

“Our priority is protecting the health of our students, faculty and staff,” Hans said in a news release. “We believe we can also help our students accomplish their educational goals through online instruction. Our colleges are resilient and accustomed to pivoting to meet emergent needs in their communities; this is no different.”

Students could get some financial relief with tuition. The State Board of Community Colleges is likely to consider letting students extend tuition payments towards future course enrollments, according to the press release.

Wake Technical Community College extended spring break another week, giving it two weeks to move classes online. The college had already trained the vast majority of its faculty in online education, says Scott Ralls, Wake Technical Community College president. 

“Everybody is making preparations to move everything that we can online,” Ralls said. “We’ll definitely have some challenges, but it does give us a pretty good place to begin in this situation.”

Ralls expects students to finish the courses the college can move online. But certification courses and workforce training will prove complicated. Classes like nursing and welding require hands-on experience, and Ralls says the college might extend the semester to give students a chance to complete these courses. 

“That’s a little more challenging. Nobody is fully prepared for this situation because nobody’s been exactly in this situation,” Ralls said. 

Instructors have been working to move as much of the hands-on experience online as possible. The baking program has sent students home with take-home ingredients, and other instructors are front-loading lectures.

“But you can only have so much runway with that,” Ralls said. “We’ll do as much as we can lecture-based with those programs, but we’ll likely come back later, when it’s safe, to finish with the lab and shop-based portions of those courses.” 

Randolph Community College is working to move coursework online for student nurses. Most curriculum already uses “hybrid programs” with significant online learning, says Dr. Elizabeth Snow, Randolph Community College nursing instructor. 

The financial effect on community colleges remains unclear. If the virus causes a recession, state revenue will drop, potentially affecting colleges’ resources, says Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation Director of Education Studies.

“Does that mean that community college systems will receive less aid?” Stoops said. “Just how much will the state be willing to use to ensure that the community college system can meet the needs of those displaced students? Those are questions that the General Assembly will have to consider when they come back.”