When Hanan Hassan was given an immigration visa from her home country of Iraq to the United States, she only had two weeks to gather what she could before starting a new life.
She couldn’t collect her educational documents from the Iraq Ministry of Education in that short amount of time, so she came to the United States with no proof that she’d even gone to school, despite having graduated from the Iraqi equivalent of high school.
But in February, Hassan, a 33-year-old Glenburn resident, enrolled in an adult education program, focusing on completing high school in Maine. She and thousands of others have chosen to give education another go in the middle of the pandemic for a variety of reasons.
While the impact of COVID-19 is often negative, the pandemic forced the state’s adult education system to come up with new ways to break down barriers that were preventing Mainers from seeking higher learning. This past year, more people enrolled in high school completion programs in Maine than in the previous three years, despite the deep impacts COVID-19 has dealt education at all levels across the state.
That number, plus rising enrollments in workforce development courses, English language courses and college readiness are all promising signals that adult education is coming back and in a big way, said Gail Senese, director of adult education for the Maine Department of Education.
“We had to make these really rapid pivots to online learning and we had students who weren’t prepared for that, so we lost about probably 40 percent of our learners during that initial period of disruption,” she said. “The good news is the way that we rebounded starting last year.”
The pandemic has forced programming across the state to adapt to the circumstances and has even allowed some to prosper, said Rebecca Cross, the director of the Penobscot County adult education program shared between RSUs 22, 26 and 34.
But for the students in the programs, the flexibility produced by the pandemic has been the reason behind their successes.
“I do it at my own pace, because I work all the time so there is no way for me to be [in class] in person,” Hassan said. “I wanted to balance my work and my education.”
For Cross and her program — Riverside Adult Education — the pandemic brought with it an initial dip in enrollment, but she’s begun to see an increased number of younger people completing their high school diplomas. There also is a rising number of people taking advantage of other learning opportunities, ranging from those already in the workforce seeking specific credentials, to English language learners and prospective substitute teachers.
Data from the Maine Department of Education bears out Cross’ observation. During the 2020-21 school year, 35 percent of the participants in a high school completion program were 18 years old or younger, the largest percentage of that age group seen in the last four years, according to the data.
Part of the reason for the rise could be from the increased flexibility younger students have acquired after nearly two years of learning during a pandemic, Cross said.
Traditionally, there have been three barriers to adult education — access to child care, transportation and work schedules, Cross said. But once the pandemic forced everything to a grinding halt, Cross said she and others were able to get creative.
“Some of the permission to be creative during this unusual era has been really beneficial to adult education programming,” Cross said. “I definitely don’t want to sound callous to the struggles of COVID, but the funding that’s been available and the flexibility that is new, has been really great for a lot of our students.”
In the Penobscot County program, Cross built a digital library that gives students access to resources like computers and wifi hotspots to ensure they can overcome any barrier they might face in the changing learning environment, she said.
And that library wouldn’t have been possible without COVID-19 funds distributed by the federal government, Cross said.
Since 2019, programs throughout the state have been trying to get laptops into the hands of students, Senese said, but the rapid switch to virtual learning at the onset of the pandemic forced her and other adult education leaders to reconsider their approach.
“This was the impetus that was truly needed to review what we do, what barriers we might have created, that might have been impacting our learners,” she said.
For example, Hassan said she can access all of her work anywhere she has cell service or wifi through an online dashboard, and that Riverside gave her a laptop to complete her work when she started the program.
Hassan doesn’t have much longer before she completes her courses and the program, but her education likely won’t stop there, she said.
“I’m thinking about nursing [school] or something like that. I work in the medical field already. I love to help people in need. That is my passion,” Hassan said.