COVID-19 has changed everything in our world. We no longer greet friends with a hug or handshake. We do not head to graduation ceremonies or sporting events in stadiums. We have left behind commuting to the office, where we once gathered with colleagues to work in person. And we no longer engage with other students in person for traditional classroom learning.

COVID-19 has been a global disruptor. COVID-19 does not care. It has killed millions of people, shut down thousands of businesses, and closed schools, colleges and universities around the world. COVID-19 has devastated the lives of millions of people throughout the world.  

“Given the nature of the pandemic crisis, all hands should be on deck, and all available tools should be used.”

                          Christine Lagarde
                     President, European
                                  Central Bank

But even with COVID’s negative impact, medical professionals, business leaders, educators and others are searching, creating, and leveraging their entrepreneurial mindset to defeat the virus. We wave to friends and work colleagues from Zoom meetings, dialing in from our home offices. We cheer on grads and athletes from Zoom and on TV, too. And we have found that you can still attend college by taking courses online with your professor and find the assistance you need when you have a problem.  


Throughout the pandemic we talked with several community college leaders about how their college addressed the unknowns and complexities of COVID-19.  We asked two colleges leaders, one urban and one rural, to describe their journey with how they dealt with the pandemic.  As you read their accounts of what happened, think about your own college or your own personal situation.

It was all “hands on deck” when Minneapolis Community & Technical College President Sharon Pierce launched the Pandemic Response Team and Functional Operations Teams to ensure the college would be prepared for COVID-19. President Pierce was fortunate to have experienced leadership teams at her college that were trusting, understanding, and problem solvers. While the Pandemic Response Team functioned as an oversight committee, the operational teams – which included such areas as facilities, student support, instruction, and IT – developed the action plans to guide the college through the pandemic. Many faculty had never taught a course online and to provide more personal computers for students with internet access. Not an easy task!

With major assistance from several entities, particularly the Minnesota Department of Health, which provided a comprehensive outline on the critical factors to be addressed as part of the COVID-19 Plan, the College COVID-19 teams were prepared to launch. Each team member was actively involved in developing the planning and implementation strategies.  An ongoing internal and external communication plan needed to be created, and team members needed to know the expectations and responsibilities. Crucial for success was strong and supportive leadership that was knowledgeable and innovative.


When Minneapolis College Vice President, Gail O’Kane, was asked to describe the work of the COVID-19 teams she said, “we had a creative, collaborative, and trusting culture. We knew what we had available, and we scripted everything we needed to do to keep faculty, staff and students informed and safe. We were very mindful of the human elements of fear, anxiety, and confusion. We knew that it was critical to keep the teams engaged and motivated throughout the process. We analyzed our curricular offerings and adjusted what we needed to do for our students and faculty. And we continually asked 'WHY.' We knew that if we used our collective innovative talents that our playbook would help students, faculty, and staff. If our plan failed to work we were always ready to pivot.” 

Vice President O’Kane underscored this with a reference to innovation at the speed of collaboration – the idea that the speed of collaboration defines how quickly innovation can occur. 

Community colleges have a long history of innovation, serving high risk students and adapting to disruptions. They are nimble, focused and resilient. While all community colleges have experienced similar problems from COVID-19,  according to Suzanne Wilson Summers, the challenges at the approximately 800 rural community colleges that serve 3.4 million students,” are amplified by geography, distance and economic and social conditions.”

Steve Schulz, the President of North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) and the incoming Board Chair of NACCE has utilized the entrepreneurial mindset culture at his college to address the challenges of COVID. NIACC, which is in northern rural Iowa, serves nearly 5,000 credit and non-credit students each semester in an eleven-county area that encompasses 3,621 square miles. Nearly 80% of their students are first generation students.


Crucial to success is strong and supportive leadership that is also knowledgeable and innovative.


The speed of collaboration defines how quickly innovation can occur. 


Create a culture of creativity, collaboration, and trust. Be mindful of the human condition, motivate, engage, and harness the power of collective talent. 

- Dr. Gail O'Kane

When President Schulz was asked how his college addressed the pandemic he said, “when the pandemic hit, we were positioned to mobilize immediately.  The college had previously used elements of the Design Thinking process from the NACCE Center of Practice (COP) model which prepared us to innovate and respond quickly. Our planning teams were immediately operational, we connected with our Public Health Department, and we knew what we had to do to keep students safe and secure. We moved more of our instructional and student support programs online. And critical to our plan was to aggressively support students with more financial assistance, retention strategies and technology support. We have been transparent throughout the entire process, and our ongoing communications plan has been well received.”

Even with the COVID-19 crisis spreading throughout the country and the state of Iowa, the college continued to innovate and move forward with other projects.  In March of 2020, a $15 million dollar Bond Referendum was passed by nearly 80% to renovate campus buildings, expand services, and establish regional centers in selected communities. Six months later with the growing spread of COVID-19 across the country, NIACC held a ground-breaking ceremony to celebrate the construction of one of the largest solar arrays at a community college in the United States. This project will save the college $10.7 million over the next 25 years. These two examples at NIACC illustrate that success – even in times of a pandemic – is possible with the trust and support of college and community and a powerful coalition between stakeholders. For rural community colleges, the communities that they serve look to them for hope when there is a crisis.

When President Schulz was asked about the lessons and potential opportunities that the college learned from the pandemic he replied, “Yes, we have learned a lot. We know that we need to continue to think differently about learning and reimagine ways to strengthen the educational opportunities for students.  And we need to continually grow our entrepreneurial mindset throughout our college community and collectively find creative ways to help us find new solutions. Clearly, if you want to be successful you need all hands on deck and all available tools should be used.”

Recommended Resources: 

What COVID-19 Means for Community Colleges | Columbia University Essays, February 8, 2021

Five Key Roles for Effective Leaders During COVID | Inside Higher Ed

How to Make Better Decisions About Coronavirus | MITSloan Management Review

The New Reality and Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education | 2020 Coursera Virtual Conference April 24, 2020


Looking for more? Take a listen to this curated collection from NACCE's own podcast, Making Our Way Forward. Like what you hear? Subscribe on your favorite platform!  

Learning from Tomorrow with ‘Big Trends Guy’ Bart W. Édes On Strategic Foresight & Reshaping Asia & the World
00:00 / 01:04
Entrepreneurs with Physical & Other Challenges – Doing Business Our Way with Lea Strickland
00:00 / 01:04
How to Empower Students with Economic Independence – Earn to Learn with Kate Hoffman
00:00 / 01:04