The Math Center at Yakima Valley College was bustling on Wednesday, with more than 100 students passing through and upward of 60 receiving tutoring support.

It was unusual for the first week of fall term, especially since it all took place online, said Douglas Lewis, a math instructor and director of the center.

Typically, the Math Center offers a variety of seating for groups or individuals, breakout rooms to study in, tutors to offer support and coffee, he said. Lewis said he tried to recreate that through videoconferencing. The center has been renamed Math Care For All, or MC4A, in its online format.

MC4A is one example of how Yakima Valley College and Heritage University are finding creative ways to engage and support local students as they return to school for fall term, largely remotely.

Students at Heritage University are well into fall term, having just completed the fifth week of classes. Meanwhile, students at Yakima Valley College returned this past week.

In the online math center, a host greets students as they enter and asks them what they need. Tutors are available to help, or students can go into individual or group “break out rooms” online and work there until they have a question. With the click of a button, a tutor is asked to offer support. Math instructors also use the space to host virtual office hours with students and offer help, Lewis said.

Lewis said no one anticipated the space’s popularity, and he had to quickly seek out more tutors to offer support. Now, with MC4A having served 100 students on Wednesday alone, he said staff are bracing for the coming weeks. Demand for help usually grows as tests and coursework mounts in the second and third week of a term.

Fall term underway

The start of the school year at YVC and Heritage looks dramatically different than any other fall term. Both primarily are offering instruction online in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

YVC enrollment numbers are still coming in, but the college pared back its course offerings by 3-5%, said community relations director Dustin Wunderlich.

At Heritage, course offerings are unchanged, and enrollment remains similar to most fall terms in spite of remote learning, with 318 incoming students compared to 327 last year, said Vice President for Marketing and Communications David Wise.

Staff at both schools are finding creative ways to connect with and engage students.

The approach at Heritage

At Heritage, events have been called off, postponed or moved online and the vast majority of classes are offered remotely. But the university has left campus open and available to students, said Wise.

Students register beforehand to come to campus, where they are able to connect to the internet and find quiet study space that is distanced from others and frequently sanitized Monday through Saturday, he said. In the event a positive COVID-19 case occurs on campus, the pre-registration will allow the university to identify close contacts for contact tracing.

Wise said campus access important to students who may not have internet at home, who may share a weak connection with siblings, or who may not have sufficient space or quiet at home to complete work. Students are able to sit in a classroom to watch teacher lectures by video, he said. Programs that require hands-on learning, like the physician assistant and nursing programs, are using in-person instruction.

On campus, classrooms have been measured and capacity reduced, while study spaces have been marked off to follow social distancing. While computer stations are available on campus, the school has distributed laptops to students on loan or as grants to provide them access to remote learning.

Students are encouraged to join lectures at scheduled times for what is called synchronous learning. But Wise said one benefit of the adjustments made to accommodate the circumstances is that most lectures are recorded, allowing students to re-listen to lectures or watch them when their work or home life schedules allow.

“There are no silver linings associated with COVID … but there are some things we’ve learned that are beneficial for students that we’ll carry on even after COVID has come and gone,” Wise said, pointing to recorded lectures as an example.

YVC’s take on the COVID era

Instruction and services at YVC also are primarily online, with a small list of courses requiring clinics and labs taught in-person following strict safety guidelines including social distancing, said YVC’s Wunderlich.

Counseling, financial aid and library services are among those offered online, as well as the college’s diversity series, set to kick off in the coming weeks. New student orientation took place online and served a record number of students, with 98% of students signed up — the second highest rate since 2012.

The college has distributed roughly 480 laptops and 100 internet hot spots to students, and is anticipating 100 more of each in the near future, Wunderlich said.

While sports and fitness services are on hold, some hands-on programs have continued despite the pandemic. The Larson Gallery, for example, is taking submissions for an exhibition likely to take place virtually later this fall, he said.

With just a few days of the quarter complete, Wunderlich said staff are using experiences from spring and summer quarter to continue improving students’ experience. He said a spring survey of students found that 88% reported remote learning was a positive experience in which they felt connected to faculty. The college is encouraged by that, but hopes to continue improving on it, he said.

Connecting with students

For John Bissonette, an art teacher at YVC, the initial transition to online teaching required “heavy lifting.”

“But, with a cellphone and a little knowledge of video editing, I managed to get most of my content online,” he said. “I ended up taking all of my lessons and breaking them down into video tutorials that I produced out of my home studio. I could have sourced tutorials online, but I wanted the students to feel like they were working with me.”

Bissonette broke each lesson down by topic and made time lapse demonstrations and stop motion animations to share concepts with his students. Students watch these on their own time, submit an assigned draft project based on the lesson, watch follow-up videos with feedback, revise their work, and “the cycle continues,” he said.

“It is very similar to the classroom, there is just a delay,” said Bissonette. “In the class, feedback would be instantaneous. Online it takes more time.”

He tries to be as verbal and visual as possible, and to offer encouragement, since he says motivation can be a challenge online. Bissonette also offers the option for videoconferencing directly, but said he doesn’t require this because it could be hard for students to accommodate.

So far, he said, the courses have been successful despite the transition online.

“When the students are engaged and enthusiastic about the content, they make some really impressive work,” he said.

Lewis of YVC’s Math Center said he’s also been impressed by administration and faculty. He said the college had swiftly provided technology necessary for the Math Center to provide necessary supports for students. And he’s also seen staff collaborate to improve their offerings for students. MC4A, for example, is modeled after an online platform developed by the college’s Writing Center. Teachers have also shared materials with one another, or developed new teaching materials on collaboration with fellow staff.

“I’ve learned a lot. I will do things differently in the future because of this,” Lewis said of lessons in innovation and collaboration gleaned during the pandemic. “Hopefully for the better.”

Reach Janelle Retka at or on Twitter: @janelleretka