California made a push this year to have its more than 100 community colleges fully reopen last month as part of a larger statewide effort to cast aside COVID-19 public health restrictions and return to normal. But for most schools, it's going to take more time.
Such is the case at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, where most classes remain online for the summer quarter that started last week. A short list of classes, including athletic courses, Spanish and theater, are all back on campus, along with medical training and certification programs that have been back for in-person instruction for more than a year.
School officials say it's part of a "phased" approach to gradually return to normal, and that the fall 2021 quarter will look much different. At Foothill College, the plan is to be aggressive and bring back more than 400 in-person classes. It won't be a complete jolt back to 2019, but it'll be pretty close, said Simon Pennington, the school's associate vice president of college and community relations.
"We are offering a much more robust selection probably than most community colleges in the area," Pennington said.
For years, Foothill College had already earned a reputation as one of the first schools to offer online courses and a path for an online-only degree. That made transitioning to remote learning during COVID-19 easier, Pennington said, but it also meant it wasn't a tectonic shift for the school. Even before the pandemic hit, about 50% of the classes were already online.
The glaring exception were the hands-on courses, particularly for those training to be dental workers, paramedics, radiology techs and respiratory therapists. Those students returned to the classroom in May 2020 to fulfill their clinical hours and have been working in clinics and hospitals in the area. Bringing back students in the medical field during the worst of the pandemic meant painstaking planning to avoid the spread of COVID-19, Pennington said, with so many masks, visors, Plexiglas and other safeguards that students looked like they were preparing for a trip to the moon.
"Our students and faculty and staff were able to do this seamlessly and provide care," he said. "We had students working in hospitals in April and May providing life-saving treatment."
The safety protocols have since been relaxed, but masks are still required in the classroom and food services remain shuttered. Foothill students are also required to use a health screening app called Modo for a self-assessment each day, while De Anza students use a similar app called Optimum HQ.
Classes returning in the fall include chemistry and biology courses, which often involve labs that are hard or impossible to conduct over Zoom. Certain art classes that benefit from face-to-face instruction are also slated to return, Pennington said, including ceramics, which had to ditch throwing wheels in favor of online hand-building classes.
But plenty of courses are still online only, which has some students frustrated. Cathryn Krajewski, an incoming freshman at Foothill College, said she's looking to enroll in 20 units and was disappointed to see only five will be offered in person. She said she's pursuing a public health major, yet one of the foundational courses kicking off her college career — Intro to Public Health — is an asynchronous online class.
Other classes are offered on a hybrid basis, meaning students attend class on some days of the week, but Krajewski said there's a catch: Almost all of them are packed between the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is awful for working students and almost guaranteed to overlap.
"It feels lazy, honestly, and doesn't give me any chance to see classmates in person or on Zoom," she said. "It's 'work in your bedroom by yourself' school, which isn't very fun or very instructive."
The plan at Foothill College is to fully return to a normal balance of in-person classes for the winter 2021 quarter.
Though Gov. Gavin Newsom had explicitly called for the reopening of community colleges on June 15, there were some practical limitations that have kept local campuses quiet this summer. Pennington said the summer schedule was drafted four months ago when the virus was still a serious threat, and the country was just coming down from a brutal winter surge in cases.
"It was a very different situation then. We didn't know if the COVID cases were going to continue to drop or if they were going to increase," he said. "So we were conservative with the summer because we didn't want to promise students something we couldn't deliver."
Surveys conducted by Foothill College found that 51% of students want to keep their classes online only, while 36% sought a hybrid approach and 12% wanted to be on campus full time. For those who want to return to campus, 57% said it was important to return for reliable internet access; 55% said they needed a place to study; and 51% said they wanted help with assignments.
The results are similar to surveys at De Anza College, where 47% of students wanted to stay online and 40% wanted hybrid classes with a balance of online and on-campus days.
To assuage the concerns of returning students and staff and prevent a campus outbreak, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District's board of trustees voted unanimously on June 14 to adopt a vaccine mandate for returning students and staff. Under the policy, any students attending in-person classes and any staff with person-to-person contact will be required to be fully vaccinated as of the first day of the fall quarter.
The policy has some caveats, including medical and religious exemptions and a possible delay on the implementation of the mandate. It would only go into effect once the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval of at least one of the COVID-19 vaccines, rather than the emergency use authorization that greenlit mass vaccinations late last year.
Self-reporting in the surveys shows 72% of Foothill students and 76% of De Anza students have been vaccinated, both of which are below the countywide average of 80%. Pennington said 90% of the faculty and staff at Foothill College have been vaccinated, but it's been difficult to pin down the exact numbers for students expecting to return in the fall. Both the district's unions have shown strong support for the mandate.
Fall registration begins on July 12, and classes start Sept. 20.