• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Making the Call

Deciding what to do for spring

October 6, 2020


Monday’s article about community colleges that decided early what to do for the fall semester is well worth reading, if you missed it.  We just made ours for the spring.


As a college without dorms, the decisions are less complicated in some ways.  Residence hall revenue was never a part of the budget, and we don’t have to try to figure out how to regulate student behavior in dorms.  We also don’t have revenue-generating sports and the rabid alumni who sometimes come with them, so we don’t have to try to explain how, say, football or basketball is consistent with social distancing.  That simplifies matters, at least comparatively.


We also have a long and deep history of online teaching, with much of the infrastructure solidly in place.  That made a quick pivot much easier than it could have been.  And the results from late spring and summer were relatively encouraging, all things considered.


That said, when it came time to decide about the fall, there was no shortage of variables.  The virus itself was a variable; in May, we didn’t know what August would look like.  State regulations were variables, changing as the pandemic evolved.  Enrollment was a variable.  In the middle of the summer, we were looking at some really scary numbers for the fall.  They improved as the summer wore on, but we didn’t know at the time whether that would happen.  Funding was a major variable; the state canceled our funding for the second and third quarters of 2020, and there were rumors that we’d get nothing for the rest of this academic year.  (Happily, the new state budget restored funding for quarters two through four of the fiscal year.)  


And all of that is before addressing the human side.  Would students stay away if we weren’t on campus?  If so, how large a hit would enrollment (and therefore revenue) take?  If we allow some to come back, how confident could we be that we could do so safely?  Would faculty be willing and/or able to return?  What if they get sick?  And what about the local K-12 districts?  Plenty of employees and students have children in school.  Even if they wanted to come to campus, is it realistic or reasonable to ask them to leave their second graders home alone?  


Putting it all together, we went into the fall with the approach that if it could be done virtually, it would be.  Over 90 percent of our class sections this semester are virtual, whether synchronous or asynchronous.  In-person instruction is reserved for areas like Auto Tech or Culinary, where we just couldn’t replace it.  So far, knock wood, it’s going well.  Faculty have gone above and beyond to make Zoom classes effective.  The instructional designers at the Teaching and Learning Center deserve medals.  Advisors, counselors, financial aid staff, and everyone else working remotely have found ways to be effective at a distance.  As a bonus, I’ve had the chance to “meet” many people’s cats, who like to saunter on screen during Zoom meetings.  Dogs are mostly heard but not seen; cats are mostly seen and not heard.  I’m more of a dog person, but there’s something about seeing a cat’s tail twirling behind someone’s head in a meeting that always brings a smile.


Deciding for spring means re-weighing many of these factors, and taking our best guesses as to the spread of the virus over the next few months.  Will it get worse, as people move inside more and lockdown fatigue spreads?  Or will it get better, as mask use becomes more normal?  Will the K-12 schools open up fully, or partly, or not at all?  If offered the possibility of in-person classes, will students choose them?  And what does the community want, to the extent that it knows?


We have some survey data, but the social scientist in me puts limited stock in survey responses when people lack important context.  “Would you prefer in-person classes?”  Well, that depends on how safe they feel.  In a perfect world, yes.  In a pandemic, maybe not.  If my kid is in school, yes; if not, no.  If they feel normal, yes; if they’re distractingly tense, no.  And so on.  


In our case, we’re looking at a gradual opening-up, starting with volunteers to teach in person.  Some have stepped forward.  I don’t hold either choice against anyone.  We’re measuring classrooms to see how many students can fit, consistent with social distancing.  We’re looking at how many screening stations we can afford at entrances, and where to put the new ones.  Either students will sign up for those in-person sections, or they won’t.  And there’s an implied asterisk that if the virus surges again, we may have to retreat again.  There’s really no way around that.


I know people often want clear, certain, quick answers.  I’d like to be able to offer some.  But in this case, thoughtful muddling-through may be the right answer.  



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