Community College Leaders Worry COVID-19 Crisis Will Push Students To Drop Out

Glendale Community College, before the coronavirus crisis. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

The effort to move community classes online has been a large feat. Some of these campuses educate as many students as the larger four-year campuses and with 115 colleges, the state's community college network is the largest higher education system in the country.

"Our main focus has been helping to support students through this crisis," said system Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

The campuses are governed by local boards of trustees but his office has been working to help the campuses transition to online instruction. Oakley issued an executive order earlier this month to clear the way for all campuses to begin online teaching.

"We're taking a hard look at what regulations need to be suspended in order to allow the colleges to do the work they need to do to support students," Oakley said.

The impact of those actions will be felt in the coming weeks as many colleges enter the second week of online instruction and some, like the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, begin online teaching on Monday. Educators say the goal is to continue instruction, not necessarily turn faculty into model distance educators. But some student reactions suggest colleges' efforts may not be enough to counter the impact of the current crisis.

ALL HANDS ON DECK

Glendale Community College begins its second week of online instruction on Monday. Its effort to train faculty to teach online provides a window into how educators were able to make the most of a chaotic situation.

The task appeared straightforward on Friday, March 13. The college was set to start online courses the following Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday were set aside to train its 850 professors.

Then the results of a faculty survey came in.

"Half of them said we need more time. And about 15% said they didn't even think they'd be ready at the end of the week," said Glendale College history professor Roger Bowerman. He's also the president of the faculty union.

It was bad news.

Some professors had never used Canvas, the online platform for class assignments and tests. In an emergency meeting, faculty and administrators decided to clear the whole week for training. Only one of those days ended up being in-person.

"By Monday night, it became clear that the state was going to mandate social distancing and so by Tuesday we were already doing remote instruction," with faculty using the online platforms they'd use to teach as a way of teaching each other how to use them, Bowerman said.

Departments were divided up into groups that included at least one expert in distance education.

"The English division created buddy systems so that people with skills were paired with people that needed help," Bowerman said.

He said a survey at the end of the training week showed 85% of faculty were ready to teach online.

The first day of online teaching went well for many professors.

"I was able to get through and actually hold a lecture exactly the way I would in class," said kinesiology professor Erin Calderone.

"I would go through the slides, I would ask students if they had any questions, we had discussions either verbally or over the typed chat," she said.

Online teaching is not ideal for her field. Kinesiology is the study of body movement and many of her students want to become personal trainers or work in some aspect of sports. Calderone is trying to use as many parts of her online class platform as she can to engage students.

Erin Calderone is a kinesiology professor at Glendale Community College. She's made the transition to online teaching. (Erin Calderone)

STUDENT: THIS IS NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR

No matter how engaging the professors make the classes, some of their efforts will meet with the reality that online learning is not what some students signed up for.

"I just learn better when I'm in a school setting," said Tom Dormer, one of Calderone's students.

"It's just something about actually being on the campus and you know, sitting down in class and in getting the lesson and hands on stuff and being able to ask the teacher right away right there and to break it down," Dormer said.

He's highly motivated to do well this semester because he needs his classes to transfer to a four-year university in the fall.

Motivation, though, won't be enough for many community college students to overcome what this crisis is throwing at them: lost jobs and many more hours during the day caring for family instead of studying.

"I just think about parents, single parents who now have their kids at home when they're trying to go to school," said Molly Mercer, a counselor at Glendale College.

"How are they going to take their classes from home while they're trying to take care of their kids, and teach their kids, and feed their kids at home," she said.

Those, and other vulnerable students, no longer have the face-to-face counseling and other support that kept them in classes.

DON'T PENALIZE STUDENTS

Some Glendale College professors said about one in 10 students haven't shown up to online class. Bowerman, who's teaching one history class this semester, said an additional 10% percent are struggling to cope emotionally or having problems with technology.

"So what faculty are encouraged to do is try over the next couple of weeks to engage them. And if you can't engage them, if they've seemed to disappear we're going to drop them from our classes so they don't get a fail," he said.

The state chancellor is well aware of this concern.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of 115-campus California Community Colleges system.

"There are certainly some temporary challenges with students being able to continue their education. I would hope that less than 10% actually drop out," Oakley said.

The community college system's Board of Governors granted Oakley emergency powers earlier this month. He used them nearly two weeks ago to remove academic penalties for withdrawing from a class and rules that limited tuition refunds. He said he plans to take more action.

"We also are trying to make it easier for the colleges to support students," Oakley said, "from everything from grading policy to extending their semesters and ensuring that the colleges have what they need to support students as they convert to this new online environment."

L.A.'s community colleges, which enroll 142,000 students, begin online instruction on Monday. Leaders there have been stepping up laptop distribution to students.

"I absolutely do not think it's going to be a lost semester. I feel like faculty have really stepped up and students will be able to complete their work," said Andra Hoffman, the president of the district's Board of Trustees.

She said faculty are coming up with multiple ways to connect students to learning, and campus counselors are working hard to reach students. The goal, she said, is to keep students on track to graduate or transfer, because a college degree will help them once this crisis is in the rearview mirror.