Online or In-Person: Re-opening California’s Community Colleges

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic up-ended California’s community colleges is the understatement of the century. Enrollments plunged as the system prioritized student health and safety. Whole programs were moth-balled when they couldn’t reiterate in the all-digital format. For leadership, the Coronavirus has proved to be a much-needed wake-up call to pay more attention – MUCH more attention – to the needs and realities of its entire student population, especially those learners who face higher obstacles and steeper challenges.

As the 20-21 school year ends and the Fall 2021 term nears, decision-makers are now grappling with a series of questions: whether to ‘open’ the campus earlier rather than later; which courses to offer, and when, if at all, it is advisable to expect a ‘return to normal.’


Return Considerations …

As is everything else ‘COVID,” the most appropriate response to the ‘how do we recover our colleges?’ concern is dependent on who’s answering the question, the location of the school, and the types of courses their school offers. A total of 73 college districts administer California’s 116 community colleges, each of which is managed by an independent Board of Directors. Each Board can take the CCCCO’s guidance while also crafting re-opening policies that better fit its particular school constellation.

College districts in economically advantaged communities are more likely to continue providing predominantly online learning because their students have the assets available to access those – computers, reliable internet access, and fewer family or job constraints. Communities without those economic benefits serve students without those assets, who would benefit more from an in-class return option.

The types of offered programs can also influence the decision. Many classes at the community college level are specifically ‘hands-on’ opportunities, such as auto mechanics or entry-level nursing. Schools that offer a higher number of hands-on courses may continue to experience enrollment declines if it’s not safe for their learners to return in person.

Virus saturation and vaccine engagement also play a part in the decision. Communities that are still experiencing spikes in active case numbers have a higher risk of viral spread across campus should they re-open too soon. Communities that have welcomed vaccines have some semblance of assurance that in-person learning doesn’t also mean potential hospitalization or premature death because of the disease. They could open their on-site learning options with more confidence in experiencing a close-to-normal academic year.

These factors demonstrate the challenges faced by the State’s community college administration, from the top office to the smallest school. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to gauge how each college will respond, as each must balance the realities of their individual constituencies.



… From the Student Perspective

For too many students, the possibility of returning to college in any format just isn’t viable yet. In the year since schools closed, circumstances forced many into situations that aren’t amenable to returning to school in any capacity:

Some dropped out completely as the pandemic grew because they had no digital tools to maintain their connection. Their situation hasn’t changed.

Others were not able to move forward in their education using only technology. In-person classes are optimal to facilitate the best education outcome, especially for kinetic learners who absorb information better by watching and doing.

Others assumed new responsibilities as family caregivers, supporting those still-employed family members as they worked to maintain the household.

Still others simply found work, not in their chosen field, but any job they could find. Making ends meet by whichever means were available became their new reality.

These concerns will continue to play out in re-enrollment numbers as students balance their desire to further their education with the other demands in their lives.



… From the Education Perspective

The schools themselves must balance a myriad of concerns as they determine when, how, or even if they will re-open. Fundamentally, their priority is to provide educational resources in as optimal a fashion as possible. However, in reality, a myriad of concerns impacts the provision of those resources, many of which are beyond their control.

Courses requiring lab attendance also require additional safety precautions. Decisions must consider the number of students who want to take the course with the amount of space and time in which limited lab space can be available.

Classroom teaching opportunities must also take into account social distancing mandates when students are expected to gather indoors. Mask-wearing will help reduce transmissions but may also inhibit the value of the presentation.

The digital versus in-person dilemma also remains relevant since some students have the resources to learn from anywhere while others simply do not.


… From the Facilities Perspective

Just having students, faculty, and staff arriving on campus can cause problems, too.

The social distancing mandate requires space to spread out. While some campuses have the available square footage to accomplish that goal, the shift may seriously erode the value of the lesson. Reducing class size to accommodate the spread may also mean that some students are just excluded from the course altogether.

Maintaining campus sanitation is also a concern. Most college campuses host thousands of people every day, all of whom move about from building to building and room to room. Keeping clean all those surfaces – doorknobs, desktops, washroom counters, etc. – is a daunting task even without the potential presence of a deadly virus. Adequate ventilation is also a necessity in the time of the air-borne Coronavirus.

Actual physical access also may be impeded if in-person classes resume with safety precautions in place. For example, at Glendale College, an elevator connects the uphill parking garage with the bottom-of-the-hill campus. Maintaining appropriate social distances between students limits the elevator’s capacity to one student at a time, which is untenable when hundreds of learners need to use it every day.


… From the Administration Perspective

In addition to the preceding realities, administrators must also weigh the significance of equity in their decision-making process. The COVID pandemic has starkly revealed the inequities inherent in the community college system, where students of color, differing abilities, and reduced economic situations have been particularly hard hit. For these college leaders, remaining a viable education opportunity requires attention to a different level of concerns.

Rural community colleges reported steep enrollment declines throughout 2020 as students who also worked to support their education lost their jobs.

Some students may have experienced significant personal losses due to the pandemic, becoming homeless, or losing supportive family members to the disease. Reconnecting with them requires both additional resources and the staffing and logistics resources to manage those supports.

For many students, the pandemic made the goal of pursuing an education just too challenging to achieve. The lack of resources and no true educational alternatives have caused many learners to give up their dream of a better economic life through higher education. School administrators who wish to reconnect with these students will need a different set of skills and resources to regain their trust and interest in returning to school in any capacity.


With summer here and the Fall 2021 term just weeks away, each of the constituents of the California Community College system is wrestling with how to return to the college experience, if there’s a decision to return at all. Community members with vested interests in the re-opening of the schools will be best informed by tracking the circumstances occurring in their communities and keeping up with the actions and decisions made by their local community college leadership.



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