Counselors at JCCC raise concerns about inability to opt-out of in-person advising

File photo.

Like her colleagues, Shirley Wing, a counselor at Johnson County Community College, has a fair amount of anxiety about the days leading up to the first day of classes Aug. 24. At age 68 and caring for her 93-year-old father, she wonders why she and others at risk of COVID-19 can’t opt out of in-person advising on campus, while many classroom instructors can stay online.

Wing hasn’t socialized, gone to her health club or volunteered in months. Nevertheless, she and fellow counselors will soon be taking turns at the walk-in advising desk, separated by masks and plexiglass from students who may not be taking similar precautions. She said she’s been told that her age and her care-giving status aren’t reasons enough to be able to opt out.

“The main thing is just we’re scared of what we’re being asked to do,” Wing said. “We’re wondering why we have to be there when we can do the same job much safer in this new (online) environment we’ve created.”

Counselors have been voicing their concerns about in-person advising for weeks as JCCC continues in its reopening plan. They’ve said online advising – which they’ve done this summer – will work just as well and will enable them to see more students. But they say the administration isn’t listening.

Faculty Association President Jim Leiker put it this way, “They are saying that we can serve students better and more efficiently in this current climate through virtual appointments and yet they’re being overruled by people who actually don’t do any student advising. No dean or vice president has ever told me how to teach a history class. But you do have people at that level mandating what’s going to happen at student advising.”

Staffing needs to accommodate students

At issue is whether the counselors will have to set aside some of their online appointments so they can take turns staffing the in-person area on campus for walk-ins. The school has managed through the summer with three counselors for the walk-in desk, but had planned to bump it up to six at the end of July for an expected surge of first-time college students. However the traffic has been light enough that the number remained at three as of July 29.

If it picks up, though, there may not be enough volunteers. In that case, desk duties could rotate through all 20 full-time and nine part-time counselors.

Counselors talk to students about all manner of issues, from financial aid applications to study strategies to mental health. In normal times, they would see most students by appointment in their offices. But the offices and hallways are too small for social distancing, so in-person help now takes place in an open area.

That can be a privacy concern, because students may need to speak louder about personal issues to be heard through the masks and barriers, said counselor Alicia Bredehoeft.

But Bredehoeft and colleague Annette Maassen-Spates said their overriding concern is that so few students are using the walk-in desk that a larger number of counselors might not be needed. That could result in virtual appointments stacking up while advisors sit at the lesser-used desk.

If the three counselors on campus had been working from home from June 22 through this week [July 29], they could have held 400 advising sessions with students, Maassen-Spates said. Instead they saw 136 on campus.

“It’s not serving students well and it’s threatening people’s health for no reason,” Maassen-Spates said.

Online advising drawbacks

JCCC officials counter that online advising is not always as effective with students who need face-to-face help navigating the system of financial aid and courses. Especially in the fall, those students and their families may be new to college, or may need to take some remedial coursework. Or they may speak English as a second language.

“While we continue to promote remote options, it is critical for us to provide on-campus support for students who come to campus,” wrote JCCC spokesperson Chris Gray, in a response. “The enrollment process can be quite challenging for many first-time-in-college students,” he said, adding that the walk-in center is designed for ease in taking care of many issues in one stop.

Maassen-Spates said she’s disappointed that the college didn’t appear to give counselors’ opinions as much consideration as those of classroom instructors. JCCC will be about 80% online this fall.

Bredehoeft agreed. “I think the mandate is the hardest part,” she said. “We want to be collaborative and bring forward ideas but if they don’t match the predetermined decision, there’s no consideration for those ideas.”

New students have to do various applications online, she said. “My concern is we’re taking an old model into a new world and in this new world of COVID we should all be navigating it together but we are not.”

But Gray said each department developed its own return to campus plan that included support for students physically on campus. “The counseling center’s plan was developed by their elected faculty chair and dean with feedback from others in the department. This was not inconsistent with any other department.”

Maassen-Spates said that she is also bothered by the personal risk because she has a spouse with risk factors. “I go back and forth about it. If you ask me at 3 a.m. I would say I’m really scared. If you ask me right now I’m like, ok, it won’t be so bad,” she said. “I just hope to god that I do not bring it back. If he does get it, I will have gotten it on campus and brought it back to him because we don’t go anywhere.”

Gray said the college human resources department goes by Americans with Disabilities Act rules when deciding what accommodations to make for employees. However neither age nor care-giving status ranks as a disability per the ADA. Gray said as the pandemic progresses, the human resources department will re-examine what modifications need to be made.

For now there doesn’t appear to be any recourse through the faculty association, Leiker said. But the contract will be up for renegotiating next year and it does cover working conditions. “So it’s within the realm of possibility that contract may need to be tightened to protect these people,” he said.