Most California university and college courses are virtual this fall, but a small number are still happening in-person, in ways that are different from anything normal.
These classes range from health courses, such as dental assisting and nursing, to construction trades and engineering. Limited to only a few students and an instructor, they all follow coronavirus protocols to keep everyone safe. For colleges offering these courses, that means offering more sections of the same course, so they can accommodate all students with fewer in each class.
“There’s only so many welding videos you can watch before you have to go back in a lab environment and actually weld and do it with real metal,” said Sheneui Weber, vice-chancellor of workforce and economic development for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s office.
Valeria Medrano, a 21-year-old San Diego County resident and San Diego Mesa student said she wouldn’t have been able to graduate with her dental assistant degree if the community college didn’t allow her dental classes to continue in-person over the summer.
“It was helpful, and I was actually excited,” she said. “I felt comfortable, and we knew how to protect ourselves. We knew about dental PPE and we had a plan of coming and going out of the building, so we were socially distancing and wouldn’t be interacting with people outside of our program.”
Most courses in the state’s universities and community college systems have been online this fall, and CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White has also announced plans for the 23 campuses to remain virtual starting in January.
Along with the closures, the systems said they would also offer a very small number of courses in person, courses that could not be taught any other way. Across the state’s universities and community colleges, administrative staffs and faculty members spent the summer selecting the limited courses that would be offered in-person. Their challenge was to select only essential courses.
The in-person classes that are open across the 116 California Community Colleges are often classified as career and technical education, or CTE. Across the 23 California State University campuses, less than 7% of in-person courses offered in 2019 were available this fall. Of the two University of California campuses that have opened for the fall, neither have restarted in-person classes.
“With career education programs, there’s only so much of it you can put online,” Weber said. “It relies heavily on hands-on instruction.”
Weber, who oversees the community college system’s $250 million Strong Workforce Initiative, said the state program gives colleges additional money to operate CTE classes with the aim to boost the number of skilled workers in the state. The initiative became critical in helping colleges adapt and figure out how to continue offering these classes amid the pandemic.
The challenges started in the spring, particularly for students approaching the end of their programs as shelter-in-place orders were implemented across the state. Nursing students were especially at a loss when hospitals and health facilities canceled clinical instruction and hands-on experience.
“Colleges did what they could,” to keep instruction going, Weber said. “A number of them completely restructured how to continue to deliver instruction online.” Instructors, for example, took infusion pumps home, so they could use them to instruct students online.
But for those classes that couldn’t shift online, colleges used Strong Workforce initiative funds to create more classes with fewer students, buy supplies to send home to students and design socially distanced labs.
San Diego Mesa College, for example, found an innovative way to continue its dental assistant program, which requires students to gain experience by practicing on other people.
“We asked them to bring in a family member or someone they were already in close contact with to minimize exposure,” said Isabel O’Connor, vice-president of instruction for the community college. The college’s staff put up shower curtains around the clinical suites in each classroom.
Without the ability to bring her cousins to class over the summer and other accommodations Medrano, the Mesa College student, wouldn’t have been able to complete her classes and graduate.
“My professor drove to the dental office I was interning at and was there for my X-ray series and graded me,” she said. “They were very flexible.”
Medrano said without those accommodations to allow her back in the classroom to practice, she wouldn’t be a full-time dental assistant today.
At Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, about 65% of classes are classified as CTE programs.
Like many colleges, Los Angeles Trade Tech considered purchasing simulation software from some CTE programs, like welding but found the products unaffordable. And some programs, like lineman training, which requires climbing electrical poles, can’t be converted to online.
LA Trade Tech’s lineman program was the first to return in-person with students wearing personal protective equipment and having their temperatures taken before class. The one benefit to the program is that it mostly takes place outside, said Bill Elarton-Selig, chair of the college’s construction maintenance and utilities pathway.
Of about 40 students, the class had to divide into three different sections and expand to Saturdays to accommodate everyone’s schedules, he said.
Many campuses rearranged their courses’ sequences, in case they were forced to close due to an outbreak. In Fresno State’s physical therapy and kinesiology courses, instead of finishing in mid-December, the faculty are trying to finish by mid-November. As a result, they are covering more material during every class and also focusing on the most vital information they want students to learn.
“They’re doing more of a boot camp approach,” said Denise Seabert, dean of Fresno State’s College of Health and Human Services, referring to physical therapy classes.
First-year students come on campus for two weeks of intense learning and then finish the rest online. Once they leave, second-year students are allowed online, as third and then fourth year classes are rotated on campus every two weeks.
“If we get bonus time at the end, that’s great, and we’ll go back and reteach,” Seabert said. “But for that group, they decided to front-load the critical skills within a two-week period.”
At Fresno State, the university’s nursing students spend the first four to six weeks getting critical skills in-person and then transitioning into clinical experience, Seabert said. They have it planned so that if the campus is forced to close, students can switch into virtual simulations and still meet state requirements.
“Our ability to continue moving students through the nursing program is critical to taking care of our nursing workforce and our community,” she said. “It’s critical we move them toward graduation, so we can start addressing the nursing shortage in hospitals.”
Besides making sure that these students could progress and continue toward their degrees, many of these programs are vital to California’s economy, which relies on the colleges to supply workforce demands.
The students fill jobs in essential sectors in the state’s economy, Weber said.
“If we stopped, they would no longer get workers and that would affect our economy,” Weber said.
There is still some risk to offering classes in-person.
Chico State University learned that recently when it was forced to close in-person classes after a spike in coronavirus cases among the 18- to 24-year-old population in Butte County, where the campus is located.
When deciding which courses to offer in-person, courses in the performing arts didn’t make the final cut, but those that required labs or could be offered outdoors did. Only 8% of course sections were allowed to remain in-person by the start of the fall term Aug. 24.
“We all knew this could happen,” said Daniel Grassian, Chico State’s vice president of academic affairs. “We continually let our faculty know that at any point we might need to go virtual … Hindsight is 20-20, but we made the right decisions when we did, and we felt at the time that we could safely accommodate the number of in-person classes we did. It just didn’t turn out that way.”
Still, the university is planning to bring back at least one course in-person: nursing because of the major’s strict accreditation requirements. Those students will be allowed back after testing negative for the virus, and they’ll be expected to regularly test for the rest of the semester, said Deb Larson, Chico State’s vice-president of academic affairs.
Dentistry, also because of accreditation requirements, needs to offer some in-person classes. The Commission on Dental Assisting allowed some flexibility for the Class of 2020 by allowing up to 100 of the required 300 clinical hours to be completed using virtual simulations or role-playing with dentists and faculty.
Cal Poly Pomona’s veterinary nursing program is only one of 25 university programs nationally and the only one on the West Coast. The accrediting body did not change its standards for the pandemic, and so, students had to gain hands-on experience to graduate.
Learning how to place catheters, draw blood, intubate dogs and cats and perform dentistry had to happen with live animals on campus.
Without the ability to return to campus so students could gain these essential skills, they risked putting them behind a year or two, said Joanne Sohn, the director of the animal health science program for the university. “All of us were desperate to come back to campus.”
Covid transmission between students and animals appears low, said Sohn allowing students to work with dogs, cats, rats, rabbits and horses.
To minimize infection among students and faculty, the vet nursing lab course of 48 students was divided, so only eight students are in a class together. The college condensed the classes so students will learn suturing, for example, online with Sohn meeting with them virtually one-on-one, if needed. But instead of visiting the lab the typical 15 times a semester, they now only come six times for three hours, to show what they learned online.
“We understand that if our students don’t complete” one class they can’t go on to the next class,” she said.
This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship. The Fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to postsecondary career and technical education. It is administered by the WW Foundation and funded by the ECMC Foundation.