Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


Part 5: Rolando Montoya, Interim President of Miami Dade College

Rolando Montoya, interim president of Miami Dade College, explains the challenges of reopening community college campuses in an area with spiking coronavirus cases. He also describes the institutional changes the college made to academic delivery to support student and faculty success. (Recorded Aug. 6, 2020)

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Miami Dade College Coronavirus Action Plan

MDC, the Largest Community College in the Country, Will Use Temperature Checks in the Fall
Miami Herald (July 3, 2020)

Miami Dade College Offers New Opportunities and Options for Learning This Fall
MDC News (July 28, 2020)

Miami Dade College to Receive $3M from Miami-Dade County to Provide Upskill Training to Hotel Employees Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic
MDC News (Aug. 4, 2020)


 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: Support for this podcast series comes from Jenzabar who for over 30 years has been working with higher education leaders on over 1,350 campuses to provide creative enrollment and digital transformation solutions. Jenzabar, the smart choice for higher education. You're listening to Engage Conversations. This is our fifth rapid response episode. It's part of a larger series focused on leadership in higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Philip Rogers. Today's dialogue is about reopening our nation's community college campuses. We'll take a look at the country's largest two-year public institution, Miami Dade College. In particular, a careful look at their operational strategy, their academic delivery approach, and how they're thinking about student success supports. We'll hear all about what they planned for the fall, what they're learning as a result of those plans and some early experiments in this space and how they're adapting in real time to the emerging issues of the crisis. But first, let me welcome in our co-host, my good friend, Sherri Hughes, who's ACE's Assistant Vice President for Professional Learning. Sherri, I hope you're ready for another round today.

Sherri Hughes: Yeah, thanks Philip. I've been so pleased to be part of this series and we've had conversations with some really amazing leaders. I'm sure that this will be yet another opportunity for us to feel inspired and informed.

Philip Rogers: Well, I have no doubt in my mind that that's the case. As we consider the long term impact of COVID on our workforce and on our society and the role that community colleges will play and will continue to play in helping our economy recover, I don't think we could have had chosen a better guest for today's episode. Let's get right into the dialogue. We're pleased to welcome in Dr. Rolando Montoya, the interim president of Miami Dade College. Rolando, welcome to Engage Conversations.

Rolando Montoya: Thank you. Very nice to have this opportunity of talking with you.

Philip Rogers: Well, we're glad to have you here. We're thrilled to have you as our guest because you've truly seen this institution evolve and navigate many different challenges before. I've said to Sherri that your title of interim president is just one of about 50 titles that you've held at this institution for many years. I know you'll be able to give us a lens on the situation in a very unique way compared to the others that we've spoken to. Tell us just a bit about your own leadership background at Miami Dade and this wonderful institution that you've been serving.

Rolando Montoya: Yes. I've been here for 32 years now. I have a deep knowledge of the institution because I have worked in four of the eight campuses. I have been first a faculty member, then a department chair, then an academic dean. Then I presided the downtown campus for about six years. Then I became provost, a position that I kept for nine years. Then I retired and was enjoying my life. Dr. Padrón decided to retire and the District Board of Trustees brought me back as Interim President until they decide who will be the permanent president of the institution. My academic background is in administration, finance, and accounting which has been very useful during these difficult periods. I think that that has been helping me a lot. Well, here we are trying to manage. I never imagined when I started on August of last year that my interim tenure was going to be connected to a pandemic, to an economic crisis, and then to social unrest, which all of that makes it a lot harder. Well, here we are. I think that we are doing the best possible job given the circumstances.

Philip Rogers: Well, when you have the scope and the breadth of experience that you have, there's no such thing as a retirement, especially in a crisis. We're always going to find a way to bring good leaders like you back to help us work through these tough situations. Remind us a little bit about Miami Dade. How many students? What is the scope of campuses and where they're located?

Rolando Montoya: Well, we are located in Miami-Dade County, Florida. As you said, we are the largest community college in the United States. We have 120,000 students who attend eight different campuses. We basically serve the low income population, the ethnic minorities, the recent immigrants. 69% of our students are on their Pell Grant. Basically, 57% are women, 73% are Hispanic, 16% are black. 61% of them attend part time, therefore they have many other responsibilities. 57% are low income. 48% English is the second language. It's a population that requires lots of attention, but they are doing pretty well. Last year, we were able to graduate almost 17,000 students. We graduated 8,600 students with Associate in Arts, 1,000 with Associate in Science, 1,100 with baccalaureate degrees, and about 5,400 with shorter term certificates. That's changing. That really helps with their social and economic mobility in this community.

Philip Rogers: Yeah, you represent in so many ways the very best of what American higher education is supposed to be and the criticality of serving the students who have much need. We're grateful for the leadership that you provide.

Rolando Montoya: Very proud of what we do. Yes.

Philip Rogers: Absolutely. Sherri and I want to unpack how you're thinking about navigating this crisis as you're looking to serve those students now and moving into the fall. There's a number of different areas and themes that we think are important to unpack. I'd love to start with a focus on campus operations and what you're doing now and how you're thinking about opening up in the coming weeks here. Give us a sense of what decisions you've made from an operational perspective to account for and navigate the COVID-19 pandemic this fall. I know you're thinking about a lot of health and safety related measures on the operational side to get prepared to bring folks back in a way that will protect them. What will it feel like to walk on your campuses?

Rolando Montoya: Let me tell you what I saw today when I arrived on campus. First of all, there are mandatory temperature checks at every entrance at the eight campuses. We also give a short interview to everyone who is trying to come into the campus to verify where they have been recently and to check that they don't have any other symptom. After the temperature and the interview is completed, we all get a wristband that changes color every single day. Whoever sees somebody without that band will be immediately sent to one of the entrances. Masks are required on campus. Floors and elevators are all marked to make sure that we always keep the six feet distance from each other. We have placed plastic barriers in front of every counter, every reception area, every window. There are hand sanitizer stations all around. The water fountains are all covered to make sure that nobody gets infected through that.

We have enhanced the cleaning protocols. Then we are in negotiation with a couple of providers to initiate testing on site so that we can get results in case that somebody looks suspicious, we would like to immediately get the results and trace all the contacts internally here at the college so that we warn everybody who might have been affected. For the limited face-to-face classes that we are having right now, we are making sure that there is very low density. On a typical classroom, we don't have more than 10 people. We have more when we are using some auditoriums or some conference centers that we have that allows to have a few more, but we are being very careful with social distancing and low density all the time in every single place. That's what you see when you come in.

Philip Rogers: Certainly a comprehensive approach to maintaining the health and safety of your students and your staff and your faculty. I know you're still building out the testing strategy. As you're looking at different providers, are you thinking that you are going to try to test everyone who's moving in and through the campus? Would this be more of a selective look at some populations that may present some indicators of needing to be tested?

Rolando Montoya: It would be more selective. We were originally considering the very strong test where you have the swab all the way into your nose, but that one takes longer to get the results. Now we are exploring an antigen test that you can get the results in minutes. Basically, when somebody tells us from home, "I'm not going because I think that I may be positive," then we trace all the contacts on campus. We want to test quickly all those individuals and get the results as soon as possible. We still need to send them home because the fact is that if the contact was very recent, within the next 10 days, they could become positive even if right now at the moment that you are testing they are negative. More information is better. We are trying to establish stations on the different campuses or contract with labs or urgent care centers that have branches all around the city so that it could be easy for any employee or any student at any of our campuses.

Philip Rogers: Your campus is based in both urban and suburban areas. Are you seeing challenges based on the type of area in which the campus is in? In terms of being able to track people moving to and through the campus?

Rolando Montoya: Well, the traffic in Miami is awful. Lately with the pandemic has become a little better, but distances are long. Miami-Dade County is very big. Actually, we have urban, suburban, and even rural because in the Southern part of the county where the agricultural area, we also have a campus over there. Basically, we made sure that the resources available at the eight campuses are the same. We don't see a big difference between one campus or the other. The campus is located in more urban areas. They are in neighborhoods in which the rate of infection is higher. Then in that sense, probably they are at higher risk than the ones on suburban or rural areas. But the infection is all across the county.

Philip Rogers: I know that our resident provost, Sherri Hughes is with us and I'm sure is ready to jump into academic delivery because this is an area that's near and dear to her heart. Let's talk about that area.

Sherri Hughes: Dr. Montoya, can you tell us about, I mean, you mentioned a little bit about some of your classes with 10 students or so, but can you talk about how Miami Dade has been managing academic delivery this summer, and then what your plans are for the fall? I mean, you have a really interesting mix of programs that require some unique solutions.

Rolando Montoya: Well, everything has started in the middle of the spring term. That time was when we made the decision, the very difficult decision of converting all the face-to-face classes into online. One advantage that we had is that our virtual college had been in existence for 15 years. We already had a learning management system that we keep with Blackboard, and a significant portion of our faculty were ready for a transition to fully online. Then what we did is we expanded our contract with Blackboard to provide 24/7 services to our faculty and our students. Many of the expert faculty members volunteered to help their colleagues.

We also engage in a contract with Kaplan University who are basically strong in online education and they sent to us 12 instructional designers. Our instructional designers were also super busy. We even had to bring people who had been retired, former instructional designers or technicians who came back to the college under contract to help us with this big conversion. Then we were able to finish the spring term very well, actually with less withdrawals and drops than what we typically get on a regular spring term. We were very proud of that. Then we have created already the system for the summer. We are still in the middle of the summer. In the summer we only have two modalities for some occupational courses like funeral services or the police academy, aviation, health sciences. We are having the face-to-face classes with low density. Then the rest probably about 90% of our schedule, of our enrollment is fully online for the summer.

Now as we approach the fall, classes will begin on September 1st and we will maintain face-to-face, the same type of programs that are already face-to-face. That will represent about 10% of the enrollment. The virtual college that traditionally had been about 15% of the enrollment now will be enhanced to about 25% because there's greater demand for full online. Then the other 65% is what we're planning to do hybrid or blended which a portion in the classroom with low density and the rest provided are via teleconference or online. Now, the first four weeks from September 1st to September 28, the blended classes will be fully online because as I explain later, the rate of infection in Miami right now is pretty bad. In mid September, we will evaluate what are the statistics and if they are very much improved, then we will activate the face-to-face component. If not, I guess that we will have no other remedy than to finish the fall semester fully online.

Sherri Hughes: Can you talk a little bit about what that blended environment will look like? When the students, they'll be in the face-to-face environment and when they'll be online or at home, and how you're navigating that?

Rolando Montoya: There are a couple of modalities. Many of our classrooms are fully prepared for teleconference or telepresence. Some have even installed the more sophisticated equipment that will allow even HyFlex. The idea is that in those classrooms this time aren't the majority of the available classrooms at our campuses. Professors teach a different lecture every day. For example, the Monday, Wednesday, Friday, they teach three different lectures but they have three different groups of students. The other two thirds are watching from home via teleconference. When a classroom is not prepared for that type of simultaneous teleconferencing, the idea is that the professor would teach three times the same lecture to three groups, three different groups of students.

Then the other two thirds of the curriculum will have to be provided online. For that, the professor would have to work more hours. Then we are prepared to provide extra compensation for the extra time that the faculty members will have to provide. Definitely, we will emphasize the teleconferencing first and utilize all the space available for that first. But then we might have to go with the other, what I would call the complimentary online portion. We are really calling this blended version to some way partially remote versus the online, the pure online, the traditional virtual college that is basically based on the learning management system. It is exactly like in prior terms, a portion of the students that is growing now would always select that or would compliment the face-to-face classes with some courses taken fully online.

Sherri Hughes: Terrific. Your stories of faculty supporting each other and helping each other learn this new way is really impressive.

Rolando Montoya: Faculty right now are very concerned about the potential activation on September 28 of the face-to-face element. But we are giving them assurances, to them and to the students, that we would only make that activation if the conditions allow it. Then also with all the mechanisms of health and safety that I described before. Again, we are observing what is going on. We have a couple of months yet to see what happens, what the trend dictates.

Philip Rogers: It really is a complicated set of factors at play. As I think about, hearing you talk about the different in-person modalities, when you have labs that are connected to aviation, it gives me a lot of comfort to know that folks are learning to fly an airplane in a face-to-face experience. You have both ends of the spectrum that you're trying to navigate. The fact that you were able to realize less attrition, less withdrawals than usual in this shift from face-to-face to remote, it's really impressive. I'd love to talk with you sometime about some theories behind why that was the case. Also, interested in connecting the academic delivery conversation over to student success, because you started out the conversation around the profile of your students, and many of whom could fall into some at risk categories. As you shift to a blended virtual learning environment, how have you thought about supporting the students in that journey? Many of them may have been using your libraries or other modes to access the internet. Some may not have laptops. What's the line of thinking there?

Rolando Montoya: Yes, well, we engaged in a strong, direct student support in a variety of ways. Let us start with the laptops. We had to buy 3,000 of them and they were distributed starting on the second part of the spring term. We have been distributing a lot of them also during the summer. It is possible that we have to buy even more during the fall when we have even greater enrollment than in other terms. Then for internet access, we negotiated with the big providers here in Miami-Dade County and they agreed to serve the students based on the income, the family income, the student income. It could be from free, totally free if the income is very low or very discounted prices. When I tell you discounted prices, I'm talking about $10 per month for full internet connection. I think that at this time, everybody is connected.

Also, we enhanced the contract with Blackboard so that the help desk would operate 24 hours, seven days per week. The only important thing is we got a significant amount of funds from the federal government under the CARES Act. During the summer, we have distributed a stipend to the students $9 million. For the fall, we are planning to distribute $15.5 more million to give direct support to them. We also got from private donors purchasing gift cards for the main supermarket chains. We have had the college drivers at the different campuses, bringing those cars to students who traditionally use our food pantries to make sure that at least they would get the necessary food to be able to function during the summer.

Now we have increased the number of scholarships. Our foundation had important reserves, and the reserves are to be used when you are in a period of crisis. They are not to be there forever. Then we have taken more money from our reserves to grant many more scholarships. You know that there are students who are not eligible for Pell Grant or students who are not eligible for the CARES Act stipends. There were restrictions that were provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Then we had to use our own private source funds to also provide support to them. Then another important level of support is that we created during this summer short term credit and noncredit programs in areas of employment demand. To give you an example, cyber security, digital marketing. We also provided training for COVID tracing. Then since the schools are closed and parents need to work, there was an incredible demand for daycare services, probably at the home of people who needed the training. We have offered all those short term certificates and I'm talking about doing it in a month or in two months, fully free to all the students. Also, to make sure that they could dedicate themselves full time to the program and didn't have to work or worry about anything, we also provided stipends, cash stipends, to support them while they were engaged in these programs.

Now the county has realized that we are doing that for our student body, and they just granted us, the day before yesterday, a grant of three million dollars so that we provide short term certificates to all the displaced workers from the hospitality industry. Actually for 2,500 of them. When they complete the work, the program, we can give them also a stipend of $1,000 in cash. Then basically $2.5 million will go in cash directly to the displaced workers. The other half a million dollars is what they are giving us to develop the curriculum, to deliver the classes, to administer the program, and especially to collect all the necessary information of eligibility for these workers. Because we are subject to audit and the county is subject to audit by the federal government, making sure that the money went to people who are eligible to receive it. Then, yes, we haven't abandoned our students. We haven't abandoned the community. We're working very hard on creative programs to provide support.

Philip Rogers: It's very clear that Miami Dade put students' success at the center of its mission and service, at the center of its mission and that's what higher education is all about. Sherri spends a lot of time with aspiring and emerging leaders who she gets to help coach and help build their pathways towards leadership success. We always have a few questions that we like to pose to our guests in that area.

Sherri Hughes: Dr. Montoya, first, I want to say, I think how often we in higher ed say, we educate the whole student. I just want to say thank you because you all really are educating the whole student and thinking about them as people who live in the community and have all kinds of other dimensions to their lives. That's really inspiring to hear. As Philip said, we always have a couple of questions that we ask as we wrap up. First, what keeps you up at night as you think about the future of higher education and in the context of this pandemic? Then, what advice or takeaways do you have for aspiring leaders or for other folks in higher ed who are facing some of the same tough decisions about the pandemic and its effects?

Rolando Montoya: Well, let me start with what keeps me up at night. Lately, I am waking up several times every single night. It might be my age, but I think it's also the problems that we're observing around us. The greatest concern is the duration of this pandemic. It has been so long and everything is still so uncertain about what the future will bring, of how many more terms we are going to continue operating under this difficult conditions. Then, a flexible plan is the answer to that. Like the example that I told you, well, we plan the blended for September 28, but we might not be able to activate the face-to-face. Therefore, the faculty and all of us need to be ready to continue online until the end of the fall semester.

The other thing that worries me a lot is that the economy is in such bad shape across the nation. Here in Florida, that is a touristic state and hotels are closed, restaurants are closed, bars are closed, people are scared. When you watch the news at night, who would be comfortable coming as a tourist to Miami? Then all those countries that can no longer, we had a lot of foreign visitors in Florida too. The flights are closed. Then the state is having an incredible decline in revenue, and Florida relies mostly on sales tax and sales are very low. There are no personal income taxes in Florida and corporate taxes are very low. Then the declining consumption, especially in the touristic industry is producing incredible shortfalls in Tallahassee. 50% of our operational budget is funded by the state. Then I'm very worried.

At this time, they have announced a cut of 6% that is officially temporary, but I'm afraid that it may become permanent and that they will have a special session. The legislature will have a special session in November for budgetary review. That's a great, great concern because half of our budget comes from the government. The other thing is that although spring we had little attrition and summer we were made whole, here comes the fall. We still have another month of registration before classes begin, but we have some uncertainty. It's moving nicely. We believe that we are closing the gap, but it is possible that enrollment declines and tuition and fees constitute the other 50% of our operational budget. Then we have the double whammy, potential enrollment decline plus potential budgetary reduction from the state allocation, definitely that keeps me awake at night.

Also, this is from the human perspective. I have discussed this with the campus presidents and the student deans, a big portion of our students really need handholding in terms of advisement, in terms of completing the financial aid forms, in terms of selecting what courses they should be taking on a given term. All this distance type of services, we have been good in providing admission, registration, advisement, financial aid, library services online or by phone. But we know that recent immigrants, people from inner city, people who are first generation coming to college in which the parents or older brothers cannot help in any way, they really need that direct contact with our student services and staff. We are very worried about them.

We did that survey and 51% of our students said that even though they did acceptably well with the online education, they still prefer the face-to-face. Therefore, at this time we are half and half in terms of preferences. Usually the ones who prefer face-to-face are precisely the ones with lower income or with greater socioeconomic needs who need more support, more mentoring from our faculty, from our student services officers. That keeps me awake. Of course, it's not the college's direct responsibility, but what is happening in K-12 also keeps me awake. Especially what is happening with the lower income families and they need to work. It is very sad. When they bring limited base skills to community colleges, that becomes our own problem here. Then in the longer term, I think that we might have a few years in which we will have to cover for some deficits that might have occurred during this period in K-12 education. Now regarding what do I recommend to progressing administrators who want to become deans, campus presidents, provosts, college presidents, the first thing is put the students at the center of all the decisions that you make. I know that the resources at different institutions are different, but whatever you have available, give priority to the students and the satisfaction of their holistic needs. Not only the academic component, but everything else. The other thing is you need to remain very accessible to everybody. You cannot go into the ivory tower and close the doors and let things happen on their own. No, a ranking administrator needs to be out there dealing with everybody, making himself or herself accessible to everybody and responding all the emails and all the telephone calls, communicating a lot by different means. The other thing, surround yourself with talent.

I think that one of the reasons we are doing acceptably well given the circumstances is because we have professionals, specialists in different areas. That's one of the advantages of being a large institution who are providing to us an incredible support and wise advice in terms of what has to be done in all aspects of our operation. The other thing, in the same way that you manage a family, I think that you need to have your savings. You need to have your reserves because the reserves are to be used in times like this. But if you have been spending everything and you are not ready like I know many institutions right now are in terrible financial condition, therefore it's not that they don't have the will, it's that they may not even have the resources to do what has to be done. In that sense, institutions that prepare for the future, creating some internal reserves at the institution or at the foundation supporting the institution are in better position. I think that's something that I advise to all administrators that in the same way that I advise that to every family, to every head of household. You need to be prepared for contingencies in the future.

Philip Rogers: Surround yourself with talent, remain accessible, put your students at the center. The human perspective is vital and something that's resonated throughout this entire series: It's critical to be a flexible, agile and adaptive leader for the future of higher education. Dr. Montoya, great, phenomenal advice for this challenging time. Thanks for your time today and for joining us.

Rolando Montoya: My pleasure. I hope that this podcast can help some people and especially smaller colleges that maybe don't have the resources that Miami Dade College enjoys.

Philip Rogers: Absolutely. Thank you for being with us. That concludes this special rapid response episode of ACE Engage Conversations. You can listen to the other podcasts in this series at You can register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engage Conversations and more, including plenty of content on COVID-19 at We want to thank our listeners again for your time. We look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you learn and to lead in the flow of your work.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go. 

Part of ACE Engage Conversations. Sign up at to listen to past episodes.


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

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