Adult Ed changed format to become ‘pandemic proof’

BAR HARBOR  Since transitioning to mostly online instruction, Mount Desert Island Adult and Community Education is serving more people; some are in different parts of the country. 

“Online classes eliminate geographical boundaries, so we do have students from other Maine towns as well as other states,” said program director Anne Patterson in an email to the Islander sent at the end of January. “I think someone joined a cooking class from California in the fall. The Spanish teacher moved from Maine to Colorado this past fall but still teaches several Spanish classes for us. And, yes, a local mom with two grown daughters in Connecticut and New York (all) took an online cooking class with us last night.” 

As with the local school district, when the pandemic shut things down last spring, the majority of the adult education programs stopped.  

“Most classes ended abruptly in March 2020. Some had just started; others never started at all,” said Patterson, who has directed the program for eight years. “Over the summer, the workload was bigger than ever for me because we were recreating what Adult Ed looked like from scratch.”  

Since it began several decades ago, adult education classes mainly took place at the high school outside of regular schooling hours. In fact, instead of offering classes online, the program offered classes to help people learn about computer software and online programs. 

“All fall, one of our goals was to pandemic-proof our programs,” said Patterson. “We got 10 loaner computers for academic students; we practiced online learning every week… The technology skills needed was a steep climb for all of us.” 

Instead of greeting Adult Ed students at the door and ushering them to their classes, the program’s evening coordinator Martie Crone now works with Patterson to assist folks through online learning. 

“We have had to help participants access the website/Zoom,” said Patterson. “We have to send out links, class info, juggle last minute registrations, deal with mistyped emails, emails going to spam folders and older people who don’t have tech skills. Yes, it IS more work! But we can do it from anywhere we have a computer and internet.” 

There are several different types of programs offered by Adult Ed that fall under three categories: workforce training, academic and enrichment.  

“Except for the workforce class, participation in academics and enrichment are the same or better,” said Patterson. “It’s hard to run a CNA (certified nursing assistant) class when the clinicals need to take place in settings that are basically in lockdown.”  

As long as the high school is operating in-person instruction, the academic portion of adult education, which includes literacy, high school completion and college preparatory instruction, can continue. If the high school transitions to remote learning, the adult education program follows suit.  

“Only a few academic students were able to continue studying,” said Patterson, referring to last spring’s shutdown. “Most stopped but resumed in August/September when we were able to see them again… (Currently) We are only doing academic students in person, in our building behind the high school, one at a time.” 

There is no adult education programming allowed in the high school building because it is closed to the public. But now that programs are offered online, participants don’t seem to mind. In the brochure sent out to sign up for the winter/spring session, there were several lessons learned listed from the first session of online classes in the fall. They included simple perks like, “people enjoyed not having to drive in the dark,” to “classes could be held anytime, any day – which people liked,” and “children were able to join their parents (for some classes).” 

Although the age limit for participating in the program is listed as 17 on the website, the new format of instruction made it easier for kids to follow along for some classes. 

“Due to online classes, we allowed and had kids take an Intertidal class with a parent, as well as a cooking class,” said Patterson, referring to Alana Luzzio’s class, Marine Intertidal Ecology. “But, unless otherwise specified, the classes are designed for adults.” 

Enthusiasm for cooking and nature-based classes has increased, as have the offerings, with the pandemic. Courses included in the winter/spring brochure, such as Mindful Eating in COVID Times, Stress Reduction in COVID Times and Become a Contact Tracer, are a sign of the times.  

One outlying effect of the pandemic is some high school students are deciding to pursue their diploma by way of the HiSET program, which replaced the HS GED (high school general education development test) in 2014.  

“I can’t speak for Ellsworth, but our numbers at MDI AE are the same, if not better, than pre-COVID,” said Patterson. “About half of our students are from another country. A few are high schoolers (who disenrolled from high school) or homeschoolers. We also have a few adults who have decided to finish high school… MDI Adult Ed has had a distance learning program that allows students living on the outer islands to complete high school as well.” 

There has been one major drawback to the new format for the adult education program, and that is not being able to offer Drivers Ed to area teenagers.  

“The inability to offer Driver’s Ed has had a huge impact on local teens,” said Patterson. “Since the high school is only open to staff and students, we’ve been unable to offer Driver’s Ed. Of course, this is frustrating to the teens and their families. Learning to drive is one of the major ‘rites-of-passage’ that teens go through in high school.  

“Currently there is a blended program proposed that would limit class time but still meet the state’s strict guidelines for DriverEd programs. There is no guarantee when and how this class will occur, but we hope to offer a blended class this spring. We want everyone to be safe from COVID so we will be moving forward cautiously.” 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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