• 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.

Title

The Soft Open

The first signs of a very partial return to campus.

July 21, 2020
 
 

I’ve been doing first days of class, in various forms, since about 1972. (To be fair, that’s counting preschool.) I’ve been doing first days of college since 1986. As an administrator, I’ve been doing first days of college since 2001. I have a sense of how first days usually go.

This one was different.

It was the “soft open” of in-person summer makeup classes.

That bears explanation.

All of the “summer” classes this year were online, whether synchronously or asynchronously. But some spring classes that got interrupted in March required students to do some in-person work to finish. That covers areas like automotive tech, culinary and photography. For those classes, students who were on track but didn’t get to finish in the spring received grades of “in progress.” Students who received those grades were invited to return starting this week.

So the soft open was just for students who had in-person work to finish up from the spring. That’s a small group.

Come September, all fall classes that can be held virtually will be. Only those that require some in-person presence will be held on campus, and even then, only to the extent that they have to. In certain automotive classes, for instance, some of the theory piece can be taught online before students show up to work in the bays. (Apparently, document cameras can work wonders inside engines. Who knew?)

Reducing the in-person component to the bare minimum makes it much easier to maintain social distancing. The soft open provides a small-scale dress rehearsal for what will also be a small-scale cohort in the fall.

The protocols just to get into a building are extensive. Before arriving on campus, you have to fill out an online questionnaire based on one from the CDC. After some basic identification info, it asks about a fever, common symptoms and recent proximity to anyone with the virus. If you pass that, you get an email with a green indicator and the date, which allows you to proceed to one of the two open entrances on campus. Both of those are staffed by security who take your temperature upon arrival; if you’re above a certain threshold, you can’t come in. (You’re allowed to try again in a few minutes if you think the reading was distorted by, say, a hot flash.) If you pass the temperature check, you get a color-coded wristband, the color of which is different each day. The wristband is mandatory to be allowed in the building.

That was all new, but also expected. We’ve been spending the last couple of months coming up with those protocols.

The really uncanny part was walking around campus. It was the cleanest I’ve ever seen it, with fewer posters on bulletin boards. The hallways were mostly empty, except for directional arrows and reminders to wear masks and wash hands. Most doors were locked, although bathroom doors were propped open so people wouldn’t have to touch them.

At one of the entrances, a few colleagues and I discussed (with masks, at a safe distance) the challenges that parents of young children will face this September if the schools go back on partial or rotating schedules. I’ve mentioned here before that the K-12 system was the single strongest argument pushing me toward the maximally virtual model; at least this way, students and employees who are parents will have the fewest possible childcare dilemmas.

The soft open went generally well. It was stupidly hot, but it’s July, so that’s not unusual. Students showed up, though given the way the classes are scheduled -- mostly open lab times -- they didn’t all show up at once. That was good; it made the screening process go quickly. The campus was weirdly quiet, but I can’t call that surprising. For a while, it may be the new normal.

I missed the students, faculty, crowded bulletin boards, buzz of activity and sense of naïve excitement that usually come with first days. But I’d miss people more if they got sick. If this is what it takes to get us through, well, community colleges are about serving the community. This is what the community needs now. When it’s ready to return to something more normal, we’ll be ready for that, too.

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