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Our View: Pueblo Community College weathers pandemic with top grades

COVID-19 has taken its toll on every sort of institution, business and organization in our region over the past 18 months. Recently, we got curious about how Pueblo Community College was faring. We don’t normally hear as much as we’d like to from PCC; its community presence seems weaker than it should be, considering that it is a linchpin of our educational system in Southwest Colorado.

PCC operates its Southwest campus between Mancos and Cortez and concurrent enrollment programs at Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio, Dolores, Montezuma-Cortez and eight other area high schools.

The college’s service area stretches from Pueblo to Cañon City to the southwest corner of the state. Vaccination and infection rates have varied widely across that area. During the pandemic, the college has had to keep up with rules and regulations of quite a few local governments and public health agencies, as well as statewide regulations, to remain in compliance and continue serving its students.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of managing the situation,” said PCC President Patty Erjavec.

The college didn’t have to close. Instead, it invested heavily in technology that allowed for remote learning. Faculty went to PCC campuses to teach classes, but during the worst of the pandemic, students stayed home and learned online in real time. Once infection rates dropped and gathering was allowed, the college offered what it has dubbed “PCC Flex,” letting students decide whether to attend online or in the classroom.

That’s been especially helpful for students who are parents, who often didn’t know from one day to the next whether their children would be in school or at home, Erjavec said.

PCC, like most educational institutions, experienced a drop in enrollment of about 10% last year. Pre-COVID-19, the college had 6,000 students at all of its sites, including 168 at Durango High and 107 at Montezuma-Cortez High in 2019. But Erjavec is confident enrollment will return to normal soon.

And, like many other businesses and institutions, the innovations the college adopted during the pandemic are permanently changing the nature of its offerings.

For one thing, because remote learning is now possible at all campuses, students can enroll in any program PCC offers – whether or not it’s offered at a campus in proximity to the student.

In the past, students at the Southwest campus in Mancos wanted to take criminal justice classes, but there were never enough of them to justify teaching it there, Erjavec said. Now, they can sign up to take the classes remotely, sitting in online with students in Pueblo.

“Now, we’re able to offer any degree or program that we offer in Pueblo to the Southwest and the Cañon City campuses. I think that’s absolutely awesome,” she said.

PCC Flex also will continue to be offered, she said.

Another silver lining of COVID-19 was the awarding of a $3.6 million state RISE Grant that is funding more collaborative efforts between PCC, Fort Lewis College and five regional school districts in our area.

The college is also launching a new agriculture program this fall, prompted by requests from the farming and ranching community.

“There are lots of good things going on, even though we haven’t been face-to-face in the community,” Erjavec said.

PCC could stand to benefit from much-discussed new federal funding for education that hasn’t yet come through; we sincerely hope our local community college gets a big slice of that pie. Community college remains the most direct, affordable means for young people – and returning students of all ages – to gain skills, learn trades and earn certificates and associate degrees. Some community college students go on to four-year schools.

And most students leave PCC with very little debt, Erjavec said, because the school has excellent financial aid resources.

“We’re very affordable – and more than anything, we have heart,” the president said. “We believe in our students.”

We do, too. Young (and not-so-young) Southwest Colorado students deserve the best opportunities community college can offer.

Fall enrollment is underway.

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