Nothing proved the adaptability of Polk County’s higher education institutions quite like 2020. When the coronavirus pandemic moved schools all over the country to close their doors in March, colleges quickly transitioned to online classes and many other changes.

As 2021 begins, the presidents of six education institutions in Polk County already have plans in place to make their top priorities become reality and continue to offer top-notch education to their students.

Polk State College

As 2021 begins, Polk State College is offering more hybrid courses to provide increased in-person learning opportunities, something students said they wanted in a recent survey, said President Angela Garcia Falconetti.

“Hybrid courses involve a combination of face-to-face and remote instruction. The health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and greater community remain our top priorities,” and the college will continue to follow safety protocols to provide a safe learning-teaching environment for all, she said.

As a state college with the highest enrollment in Polk County, Polk State offers opportunities to “non-traditional” students seeking certificates and workforce training as well as traditional students working toward degrees. Non-traditional students often balance full-time jobs, families and other responsibilities.

“This is illustrated by Polk State’s 74% of students who attend the college part-time. With the pandemic, new situations, such as having children at home attending school virtually or caring for a family member impacted by COVID-19, have created additional responsibilities for our students,” Falconetti said. “Polk State supports each student in their workforce and academic training by remaining flexible and accommodating individual circumstances.”

The college was proactive in dealing with possible cuts, Falconetti said, including instituting a pause on hiring for non-critical positions, reducing spending on travel and events/programs, reducing supply purchases except for items needed for health and safety, and offering a voluntary retirement incentive.

With the support of the Polk County Legislative Delegation, Polk State is hopeful that next year’s budget will keep funding for the college intact “to ensure critical student and academic support services continue to be provided to students during these uncertain times.”

As enrollment for the spring semester continues (apply free at www.polk.edu), Falconetti said her greatest gift would be success for every student. “I truly believe in the life-transforming power of higher education, especially education and workforce training through Polk State College. Students should not delay their education.”

Students can apply for various types of financial aid, scholarships and grants at studentaid.gov, www.polk.edu/fastforward, www.polk.edu/metallica, foundation.polk.edu.

Southeastern University

President Kent Ingle said Southeastern University is looking forward to improving its data-analytics systems as it progresses through integration with Salesforce.

“Once completed, Salesforce will allow us to completely customize a student’s experience from enrollment through graduation while giving us unparalleled data on our students’ needs at every point in their academic journey.”

Like other presidents, Ingle said he thinks the university will continue to adapt to and improve the hybrid delivery method that was developed in two months over the summer and implemented in Fall 2020.

“While overall we were thrilled with how this experience turned out, our teams have been diving into the data to learn how we can improve on it. We are excited to be able to implement these improvements in the new year.”

Despite the pandemic, SEU’s enrollment remained strong at 9,546 students, slightly lower than 2019, he said.

Florida Polytechnic University

Florida Poly’s goal — and its biggest challenge — to start the year is to continue providing a top-quality education to its students while dealing with the pandemic, said President Randy Avent. In March 2020, the university adapted quickly to remote learning; now it’s in the midst of returning to campus.

“Our university has been successful at keeping the spread of the virus on campus to a minimum thus far, and we want to continue that trend,” Avent said. “Our goal in the upcoming semester will be to remain vigilant of the virus, keeping health protocols in place, while at the same time increasing in-person instruction and on-campus activities as much as possible. This has been challenging due to the need for social distancing, but in 2021 we aim for increased campus engagement in a responsible and healthy way.”

It’s also preparing to deal with any changes to its budget as a result of the pandemic.

“At this time, we do not know if our budget will be reduced or what aspects of our university that could affect,” Avent said. “What we do know is that we are continuously working to advocate for the university and making sure our elected officials understand the unique value of Florida Poly to the state, and how investing in us will have a tremendous impact in growing Florida’s high-tech economy.”

When asked what holiday gift he would ask for, he said: “It would be that Florida Poly receives the funding it needs to complete the Applied Research Center. This building will be critical to the success and growth of our university, providing much-needed space, more research opportunities for our faculty and more hands-on learning for our students. It will also become an important element in attracting a high-technology economy around Florida Poly’s campus.”

Florida Southern College

Despite some pandemic-related delays, Florida Southern College is excited about this year’s completion of the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Computer Sciences Center, which will provide a new facility to teach cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and web and cloud computing.  It will also reorganize its career services program to help students with career counseling, job searches and more.

In addition, “we will be working diligently on revising our strategic plan and are already prioritizing the growth of key areas, including computer sciences, nursing and other health care programs, marine biology and other science majors, and business, as well as developing plans for additional graduate programs throughout the institution,” said President Anne Kerr.

The college developed FSCares during the pandemic, allowing only one person to a dorm room, requiring masks and gloves in some cases, and teaching both in class and online.

“What is exciting is that while this challenging pandemic was transpiring rapidly, Florida Southern College continued to be a growing student body. The type of education received here is still attracting students from all 50 states and 50 international countries. Yes, there were challenges but, once again, the staff excelled with on-campus rapid COVID-19 testing, successful quarantine processes, and so many other procedures to keep our students and faculty safe.”

It has postponed the start of the spring semester three weeks for pandemic safety reasons. “The entire team is dedicated to a safe comprehensive living-learning experience in 2021,” Kerr said.

Donors have stepped up to help with the roughly $1.8 million cost of virus-related safety procedures, including random testing. In addition, professors have not been traveling, and some positions are being held open until after the spring term.

A Christmas wish from Santa would have brought “the opportunity to welcome our alumni back to the campus, hold all of our sporting events, let the May Commencement be face-to-face with a very large celebration for students and their families,” Kerr said. Returning to the “can-do” spirit was a personal wish, she said, along with a vaccine so everyone can be “returning in a careful way to the energetic, engaged community of learners that characterizes our living-learning community.”

Even without the vaccine, the FSC community “has shown the same resilience, perseverance, and strength of character that has been the hallmark of this great institution since its foundation.”

Warner University

President David Hoag said Warner University wants to continue the “bubble” created on campus last fall to keep students safe from COVID-19.

“We ended the semester with less than 4% of the student body having positive results, and our quarantine process worked well. For athletics, our conference was one of only two in the NAIA to be able to complete our athletic season on time, and we were one of the last colleges to have to cancel a game due to COVID.”

He hopes the spring semester brings normalcy, including a return to in-person classes and graduation.

In 2021, Warner will dedicate its recently renovated Royals baseball stadium on campus, which now houses a 300-person covered seating area, scoreboard and stadium lights, Hoag said. He also wants to kick off its next project — a football stadium on campus that would be a partnership between the college, Lake Wales High School and the city of Lake Wales.

“It would be a shared-use facility that could change out colors based on who is on the home team. This turfed facility would also be home to a track and field area and soccer field. Warner is beginning the process of talking with donors and partners for this project.”

Webber International University

Even during the pandemic, Webber International University completed renovating its cafeteria and student union, refurbishing its older dorms and upgrading the WIFI.

“Next on the agenda is the repurposing of our library into a full-fledged health sciences center with classrooms, laboratories and offices to support our new health sciences programs,” said President Keith Wade. That program’s degrees, along with new offerings of a master’s in education and registered nurse to Bachelor of Science in nursing degrees, were started based on what employers said they need, he said.

Like other colleges, much of the focus has been and will continue to be on keeping students and staff safe and healthy, following CDC guidelines, Wade said. “We’re committed to providing our students with the education they want in the way they want it delivered.

For our students who wanted to study online, we offered online courses; for those who wanted to study in person, we handed out masks and put hand sanitizer every 10 feet.”

The university tried to make learning as normal as possible, given the circumstances.

“While we had very, very few cases of COVID-19, one positive test can very easily send 10 or 20 perfectly well students to quarantine for 10 days,” Wade said. “For students whose plan was in-person instruction and faculty whose job was in-person instruction, this created a lot of havoc — unavoidable, but still disruptive.”

Webber had record enrollment in the fall, driven in part by the new degrees and in part by the fact that a number of students just didn’t want online instruction, Wade said. “But we had huge cost increases to keep everyone safe … from temperature screening to COVID-19 testing to having a physician on campus to offering additional sections of classes to social distance to providing quarantine housing. We also had a huge jump in our mental health counseling utilization. Quarantine and isolation, as well as families losing jobs because of the lockdown, has hit a lot of college-aged people very hard.”

To deal with the extra costs, the university is delaying some projects and relying more heavily on donors. Wade is proud of the fact Webber has not laid off one employee or decreased services to students.

In a perfect world, Wade would like to add bleachers to the new football field; adding turf has been completed.

He’d also like something less tangible. “The world could use a little more patience … a moment spent in trying to understand perspectives, getting to the facts, understanding root cause and seeing if there isn’t common ground on which to stand and common goals toward which to work.”