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Community College Reopening Plans Vary Widely, Raising Equity Concerns

An exterior view of Santa Monica College.
Santa Monica College is one of 116 campuses in the California community college system.
Courtesy of Santa Monica College)
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California’s community colleges are part of one system, but in-person reopening plans for the Fall are anything but uniform.

In Southern California, community college classes offered in person for the Fall semester range from 50% of the courses taught at Pasadena City College and Cerritos College, and 40% of those at Long Beach City College, to just 11% of the courses at Santa Monica College, where most classes will continue online-only for now.

“It's a start,” said Santa Monica College philosophy major Tyler Jackson-Zeno, who plans to attend whichever in-person classes he can.

The coming fall semester marks the third academic year affected by the current pandemic.

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“As long as I'm out of the house, my mental state will be more clear, and I'm not sitting in front of a computer all day.”
— Santa Monica College student Tyler Jackson-Zeno

Jackson-Zeno has a lot of company when it comes to seeing even limited access to in-person college classes as a relief: Most college students say their mental health during the pandemic has affected their academic performance.

“I want to be around people again. I get a little jealous when I see that other schools are going to be more in-person and we're not,” said Glendale College psychology major Jenevieve Yektazarian. That’s because her college has decided to keep the current distance learning arrangement largely as-is for the fall semester.

The wide variety of Fall reopening plans for community colleges raises questions about how the patchwork of class offerings will affect those students who have struggled the most to stay enrolled during the pandemic.

Compton College is part of California's 116-campus community college system. (Courtesy Compton College)
Courtesy Compton College)

The pandemic has led to enrollment drops throughout California’s community college system. Some Southern California campuses have seen as many as one-in-four students drop their classes. Los Angeles City College administrators say their direct counseling and personal outreach approach has kept their enrollment drop to about 3%.

These enrollment drops have prompted education researchers to wonder how aggressive colleges are going to be in reaching out to those students to get them back.

“What are we going to do differently… we cannot go to the same usual practices.”
— UCLA education researcher Cecilia Rios-Aguilar

Blame It On The Elevator

At Glendale College, an elevator played a role in the campus decision to remain online for the Fall semester. The two-elevator, five-story tower connects the college’s large parking structure on an upper hillside to the main campus below.

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“The elevators can really only safely have one person with social distancing. So the logistics of just trying to get students to campus [are] mind boggling,” said Roger Bowerman, a professor of history and ethnic studies and former faculty union president.

With an enrollment of 23,000, Glendale College educates more students than many California State University campuses. Before the pandemic, the elevator tower was a busy lifeline to get on campus.

“Everyone uses that elevator to get to class,” Glendale student Yektazarian said. “I remember one time, I had to wait maybe like seven, eight minutes to get in the elevator because we all had a line and there were a lot of people trying to get in the elevator.”

According to a Glendale College spokesman, safety was also an important factor in the decision to stay online.

“(Re-opening) will not be like an on-off light switch, it will be more like a dimmer switch, a gradual process.”
— Glendale College spokesman Drew Sugars via email

At Santa Monica College, 41,000 students take classes on a campus with a relatively small geographic footprint. Administrators there said the 11% of in-person classes they’ll hold this Fall include some that were “negatively impacted” by the move online.

“We also worked with our safety experts and HVAC folks to establish some parameters, such as not going over 25% of the capacity of any given building at any given time,” said Santa Monica College Vice President of Academic Affairs, Jennifer Merlic, in an email. She added that would allow classrooms "to sit empty between classes for a period of time to ensure the room air would be fully replaced.”

Who's Advocating For Students?

For some, the variety of re-opening plans raises the question of how these plans will impact the students most affected by the move online — that is, students with poor access to technology and minimal financial and family support.

A return to fully in-person learning should be the goal to address these disparities, some scholars say.

“Sometimes I just worry about those individual moments, those informal moments [when] you're able to talk to an instructor after class to clarify a point, or to talk to peers to clarify a point — that's missing as soon as you hit 'end meeting' or 'leave meeting,'” said University of Southern California education researcher Adrian Huerta.

The math department at Pierce College, for example, looked at who is enrolled in classes as a factor to decide which classes to bring back in person.

Discussions about how to help students most affected by the pandemic are taking place at various levels of community college leadership.

“(Administrators) are worried about equity. They're worried about how we can better support students who traditionally have been underserved — first generation students, students coming right out of high school,” said UCLA education researcher Cecilia Rios-Aguilar.

She's concerned for students at campuses where the most vulnerable students aren't taken into account when making re-opening plans.

Cerritos College students administer the COVID-19 vaccine on themselves.
(Courtesy Cerritos College)

But the overriding factor now, administrators and faculty said, is still that the deadly pandemic is disproportionately affecting working class communities that are largely Black and Latino — as are a large proportion of community college students. So ensuring health and safety on campus is still the driving force in crafting what college instruction looks like this Fall.

“We do not want to return if it's dangerous to return and unsafe and unclean,” said William Elarton-Selig, executive vice president of the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, which represents about 5,000 faculty members at the nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District.

Elarton-Selig said his union is still negotiating with district administrators on the details of how classrooms will be cleaned and ventilated, along with other protocols.

There are no students at these negotiations, he said, but he and other faculty leaders say they’re negotiating with students in mind.

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