The curbside parade out in front of Merced College clocked a steady pace the week before the Fall 2020 semester began.
Was someone giving away Golden State Warriors tickets?
Was Post Malone surprising fans with a concert?
Was it free peanut butter bread day?
No, no, and, unfortunately, no.
It was better.
Merced College was busy distributing nearly 1,500 new laptops computers. The College was loaning them to students who, stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, could not complete online classes without them.
“My sincerest hope is that we have removed obstacles to any student who wants to continue their education at Merced College,” said Greg Soto, Merced College Dean of Dual Enrollment, Outreach, Guided Pathways and Admissions & Records.
Merced College had already loaned out 400 desktop computers mid-spring semester when the shutdown order came down.
When U.S. schools and colleges closed their doors in March to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, an uncomfortable truth emerged.
If everyone went to remote learning, students with a computer and WiFi could complete schoolwork, and students without them could not.
“We made sure they could finish what they started and not have to walk away because we couldn’t open the doors to technology for them,” Soto said.
On days absent a global pandemic, Merced College students could use one of roughly 100 campus computers. Those places were hopping all day long, and open for more hours during finals.
So when the pandemic cleared out campus, it was bad news for a large number of students.
“To be honest, we know that students here struggle with that financial limitation, maybe more than students in urban settings,” said Ivan Peña, Dean of Student Equity and Success.
With coronavirus infection rates climbing in July, Merced College leadership had to ensure everyone enrolled for fall could work online.
Knowing local high schools loan laptops to their students, the solution was to do the same.
Soto’s crew was primed to replicate the effort on a larger scale for fall. They began by having students apply for laptop help during virtual registration in July.
With targets acquired, the team emailed students who had applied for a loaner, giving them a date and time to come to campus to fetch it.
Soto and Financial Aid Director Traci Veyl created a schedule filled with blocks of 50 students. Their arrivals curbside on campus were staggered to maintain social distancing.
“We didn’t want to create a Black Friday situation, like shopping the day after Thanksgiving,” Soto said.
Still, finding enough laptops was tough. Every other college had the same problem and similar solutions.
Merced College Associate Vice President of Information Technology Services Arliss Bortner led the effort to find and prepare 1,500 computers. The school ended up working with a company in Saint Paul, Minn.
Merced College invested roughly $874,000 to buy 1,500 Lenovo ThinkPads. It used money allocated to them by the federal CARES Act, which covers COVID-19 related expenses.
They also added several WiFi hotspots on campus. Students can scoot by and work in the parking lot, or at outdoor tables spread throughout the main quad.
“We have students with transportation issues, housing insecurity, food insecurity,” Soto said. “Seventy percent of them receive financial aid. Our students have a lot on their plates. But right now, those who need them have laptops. And they can still ride the bus for free and get to campus if they need WiFi.”
Setting up so many computers was a master feat of elbow grease led by Bortner and his IT team.
“It’s overwhelming, when I think of how much manpower we needed to do this,” Soto said. “… It would have been impossible without [our IT department].”
When some students still couldn’t get to campus, staff quietly delivered computers all over the county.
“That was awesome,” Soto said. “The compassion our staff has for our students . . . it blew me away.”
Soto was happy at how efficiently the College acquired and distributed the laptops. As of the end of August, there were still loaners available.
The effort to get computers to 1,800 students since March because of the pandemic won’t be wasted once students safely return. Vice-President for Students Services Michael McCandless said they would like to make the program a permanent one.
“I do feel like we are ready to roll,” Soto added. “I hope we make it through the fall and push that effort into spring.”