Sisk proud of JSCC response during COVID-19 crisis

When the COVID-19 scare hit the community while Jackson State Community College was on spring break, the faculty and staff adapted the college from an “on-ground” campus to an “online” campus in less than two weeks.

Interim President Dr. Jeff Sisk couldn’t have been prouder.

“They managed to keep the interests of students first, and they continued to offer excellent instruction,” he said. “I am incredibly proud of how the faculty and staff made that quick pivot from on-ground to online.”

He is equally proud of how the students responded.

“I learned how smart and resilient young people are today,” he said. “It was an eye-opener. Students were willing and able to tackle the challenge of online learning.” At one point, he said, he watched his son, who just finished up his freshman year at Jackson State, do a class activity on his smartphone.

In some ways, the shift to having all classes online was easier for a campus like Jackson State, which already had the experience of offering online courses, Dr. Sisk said. “Every faculty member has taught or knows how to teach online. This was a total effort that involved department heads down to instructors.”

Dr. Sisk, who is also President of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) campuses in Jackson and Whiteville, saw the same effort by staff, faculty and students on those campuses.

Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) Chancellor Flora W. Tydings named Dr. Sisk Interim President last fall when then-President Allana Hamilton accepted a position with the Board of Regents. The search for a new Jackson State president was nearing its end when the virus hit.

After months of work, the search committee had narrowed applicants from more than 60 to three finalists – Dr. George Pimentel, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Volunteer State Community College; Dr. Paige Neihaus, Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Executive Director of Design Center, Wayne County Community College District in Detroit, Mich.; and Dr. Jeff Jochems, President/Vice Chancellor, Ozarks Technical Community College Richwood Valley Campus in Nixa, Mo. (For more information on the final candidates, visit jscc.edu.)

A live open forum on YouTube gave faculty, staff, students, and others the opportunity to meet the candidates and ask questions. Instead of on-campus visits, each finalist had virtual meetings with campus constituencies. TBR Chancellor Tydings is going through feedback from these groups on each finalist before making her recommendation to the Board of Regents. The Board has scheduled a special called meeting on June 2 to consider her recommendation. The goal, said Dr. Sisk, is to have a new president on campus by July 1.

He looks forward to working with whomever is named Jackson State president. “I am excited about the transition.”

Juggling the responsibilities of two TCAT campuses and Jackson State has been a challenge, but one that he relished. “I couldn’t have done it, though, without the leadership teams on each campus.”

Jackson State is continuing to keep the coronavirus in mind as it plans for contingencies on the way students will be taught, Dr. Sisk said. May was an online semester, while summer classes will have a hybrid approach of online classes with limited learning on the campus. Dr. Sisk said.

Plans now are for a traditional semester in the fall, he added. “But we’re ready to shift back to online learning if necessary. We’ll adapt and adjust.”

TCAT students started returning to campus May 18 to find wearing face masks and social distancing in place, staggered labs, and other adjustments to learning. “We are learning how to resequence teaching academic competencies (which can be done online) and hands-on competencies, Dr. Sisk said.

Some programs, such as welding at TCAT or advanced maintenance technology at Jackson State, require hands-on learning. During the coronavirus pandemic, campuses had to focus on what competencies could be done online and “what competencies we needed to wait on” until students could get into a lab, he explained.

The last few months also highlighted the importance of technical and community colleges, Dr. Sisk said. “Take a look at the essential skills and workers needed during the pandemic – EMTs, RNs and LPNs, police officers, maintenance technicians in factories, truck drivers, IT specialists … Our community and technical colleges train and teach people for these professions. This pandemic has shone a positive light on the essential skills needed during a crisis like this.”

The possibility of leading Jackson State Community College someday was nowhere in his thoughts, Dr. Sisk said, when he attended Jackson State in the late 1980s and early 1990s to earn his associate degree. Leading a campus through perhaps the worst medical emergency in our lifetimes was also not on the horizon when Dr. Sisk became Interim President last Oct. 16.

“The best lesson we all learned is that we can do this; we can adapt and still have excellent instruction. The efficacy of our efforts was positive across the board for staff, faculty, and students. I take zero credit for that; the success was due to the leadership on all three campuses.”

“It has been an honor” to help lead Jackson State through its search for a new president and its reaction to the coronavirus, Dr. Sisk said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this college.”