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Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that all schools and colleges should be able to reopen after June 15.
He specifically mentioned community colleges in his announcement. But Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of the 116 community college system, is expressing caution, and is calling for a more gradual approach. Oakley says he expects more hands-on courses to be offered in person this fall, but that most courses, especially large lecture classes, would still be offered via distance learning, or in a hybrid mode.
That, however, could change as more people get vaccinated. Specific decisions on reopening lie with individual colleges which are run by locally elected district trustees.
Oakley sat down this week for an interview for EdSource’s podcast “This Week In California Education” to explain his reasoning. He also addressed declining student enrollment at many colleges as a result of the pandemic, and why he’s optimistic the declines could be reversed next year.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
EdSource: You heard the governor this week. He’s expecting all schools to be fully open in the fall, and he specifically referred the community colleges. The last time we heard from you at the community college’s Board of Governors meeting, you were being very cautious. In fact, you suggested that instruction would be mostly via distance learning, although with more classes open than last year. What’s your thinking now?
Oakley: There are two major keys to community colleges opening up. One is availability of the vaccine. So the sooner and the more widespread that we can get the vaccine to our faculty, to our staff and hopefully to our students in the not-too-distant future, that will certainly help us open up sooner, faster and more completely.
The second thing is K-12 reopening. Many of our faculty, staff and students have children in the K-12 system and have been caring for their children, taking care of them.
So if those two pieces begin to move forward in a real way across the entire state, then by fall, we would expect to see some type of re-engagement with our community, certainly having some critical student services open for business so that students can come on campus for labs and for career technical education programs.
Where I remain a bit hesitant and want to be careful is that there will still be faculty and staff that for whatever reason, whether underlying health conditions or otherwise, still need time to reintegrate or still need to be working remotely. We also have some very large lecture classrooms. I would not want to bring 100, 200 students back into a classroom right away in the fall. So those will still be offered in some sort of hybrid mode.
EdSource: If everyone is going to be vaccinated in the fall, and that’s what we are projecting would be the case, why couldn’t they have large lecture classes safely?
Oakley: Well, if your prediction is indeed accurate that faculty, staff and students are all vaccinated, then I do think it will be a different discussion. But as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, we begin to open up and then we have to pull back. So we are going to continue to be somewhat cautious until we really see the opportunity to fully open up.
We do know that there will be some students, faculty and staff who still don’t feel comfortable getting the vaccine or cannot be fully integrated on campus, whether because of underlying health conditions or because of religious exemptions,
EdSource: We are hearing from a number of colleges talking about the majority of classes still being in distance learning in the fall. Palomar College (in San Diego County) is talking about a 70/30 split, 70% being taught remotely, and 30% in person. That will come as a disappointment to many people.
Oakley: I’m sure it will. It is a lot easier to switch from that percentage of distance learning to in-person, from distance to in-person, than it is to go from in-person to some type of hybrid. I think what all of our colleges want to make sure that we don’t begin the process of completely reopening and then have to pull back. I think you’ll see that percentage (on in-person classes) growing as the vaccine continues to go up. If we continue to move forward, I would expect that the 70/30 would be 70% in person, 30% some sort of hybrid online, which would make sense for the fall if we continue to go down this road of opening up the state.
EdSource: Some community colleges felt they had to make a decision now, because students need to plan. And that it’s better to say what will be happening rather than leave it up in the air. But that also makes it difficult because if colleges have made the decision already and students then start making their plans on that basis, would there be a tendency for a college to say “we’ve made the decision, we’re just going to stick to it”?
Oakley: The decisions that are being made on when and how to open are based on the needs of the students in the community. So part of that need is providing an understanding for our students what fall is going to look like — what their schedule is going to look like, whether they need to find child care, and if they’re getting a job, what hours they’re going to have to work. So we’re trying to provide as much certainty as possible.
EdSource: One of the things I’m sure you are concerned about is declining enrollments. Are you concerned that if the colleges don’t open fully or more fully than is currently anticipated that this will contribute to the problem?
Oakley: We are definitely concerned. This pandemic has been very hard on our students. Those students who left us predominantly are adult students and workers who have had to make some very difficult choices during this pandemic. The most important thing is that the economy gets turned around and jobs open up again so that our working adults have the opportunity to earn a living again. That would definitely help those students being able to come back to community college.
The second thing is getting emergency aid to those students so that they do not have to make difficult decisions about paying their rent or paying for their books to come to our colleges. And the third thing is opening up student services in our colleges, including financial aid offices, and all of the services that students need to be able to engage in. They just can’t get the same level of service online.
I think those three things are the most important that would help us reverse some of the enrollment declines.
EdSource: How optimistic are you that you’ll be able to turn those declines around and over what time period could you see that happening?
Oakley: I am optimistic that we can turn this around. The reason I’m optimistic is because we have two things going for us. One is we’ve got a federal government that is finally focused on the needs of our students, on the needs of workers, on the needs of an economic recovery. So with the federal stimulus, with the discussions about an infrastructure package, those things will go a long way to helping reengage with our students and helping our most vulnerable students have the means to go back to school.
The second thing is the early emergency budget package that the governor proposed and the state Legislature passed. There are resources in that budget to help our colleges reach out to students we have lost, reach out to students who are struggling, get them back engaged, and then make sure that the emergency aid that was also provided by the Legislature gets to those students. So for those reasons, I’m very optimistic that we will be able to turn this around. I think by this time next year, assuming that we’re not still chasing a virus, we will see a very different picture in terms of enrollment.
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