After a year in which they operated almost entirely online, California’s community colleges are likely to offer more in-person instruction and activities this fall, while many classes will still be offered remotely.

That is the message that Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of the state’s 116 community college system, delivered to its Board of Governors at its meeting Monday. The colleges together serve over 2 million full- or part-time students, making it by far the largest higher education system in the United States.

“We do expect to see a reopening, but given that no one thought we would be here a year ago, there is a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

The community college system is a decentralized one, and each college is run by its own elected board of trustees. That means that each college, or the district that it is part of, will decide on its own what kind of instruction it will offer in the fall, shaped by what state and local health officials say is possible.

More state health guidance sought

Oakley said the colleges are awaiting further guidance from state health officials that could have an impact on school reopening plans.

There will be “some type of reopening,” but he cautioned that “there will be social distancing, there will be some forms of mask-wearing, and it will be limited capacity,” referring to the number of in-person classes and activities that will be offered.

He said there will be more lab courses and other courses requiring in-person or hands-on instruction, as well as more sporting activities than were possible for the past year.

In the face of intense pressures from a range of sources, much of the focus of state health officials and the Newsom administration has been on reopening K-12 classes before the end of the current school year. By contrast, higher education has received only a fraction of the attention, in large part because there has been no comparable push for more in-person college classes this academic year.

But with students and staff having to make plans for the coming year, along with administrators of large and complex institutions, what the fall semester will look like is rapidly becoming a critical question to answer.

One board member asked Oakley that if President Joe Biden or Gov. Gavin Newsom were to declare the pandemic over, how much lead time would the colleges need to be able to reopen fully?

Oakley said if that occurred by early summer, “that would provide sufficient time to be able to do so.”

‘We will plan for the best’

But, he said, “I don’t think that is going to happen. I just don’t see how that will happen. We are prepared, we will plan for the best, but will be prepared to continue to be remote.”

Oakley said one challenge is whether faculty and staff get the vaccine, and when or if students will get them as well. “That is the major hurdle we need to overcome, and then look at how quickly the vaccine gets to 18-plus-year-olds, so that we can have as many Californians vaccinated as possible by the time we return.”

He also noted that because vaccines are approved by the Food and Drug Administration through emergency regulations, the colleges cannot require employees to be vaccinated. “That is something all of higher education is trying to work through,” Oakley said.

Marc LeForestier, the community colleges’ general counsel, said that even once vaccines are approved through standard regulations, there will still be faculty who would be exempted from being vaccinated on medical and some other grounds. “It will be a very complicated situation,” he said.

Hybrid learning still on plate

In recent weeks, community colleges have begun to announce what they see happening in the fall. The emerging pattern appears to be that most will offer more in-person instruction than has been the case over the past year, but many classes will remain in hybrid or distance learning modes. Just how many is likely to depend on the college.

For example, Constance Carroll, the chancellor of the San Diego Community College District who is retiring in June, said its colleges will offer a “number of hybrid/on-campus sections.” But she said that those will be mostly laboratory courses and those that require “hands-on experience” in the sciences, allied health and career/technical fields. Many lecture classes will remain online, she said.

Last week, Santa Monica College announced that “while most classes will be online, a significant number of in-person offerings will also be made available.” It will publish the full listing of classes on April 12.

The announcement had this caveat: in-person course offerings may pivot back to an online, remote environment should public health conditions related to Covid-19 not improve as currently anticipated.

The Los Rios Community College District, which consists of four community colleges in the Sacramento area, says it will offer a “hybrid mixture” of online and in-person instruction, although there will be “substantially fewer” online courses than in a normal year. Those will include what it calls 22 “Impossible to Convert” career-technical education programs — programs that have been almost entirely in “hibernation” during the pandemic.

The San Mateo County Community College District announced last month that its three colleges — Cañada College, College of San Mateo and Skyline College — “will continue to hold courses in online and distance education modalities, as well as provide most student services remotely, through the end of the fall 2021 semester.”

“Even though we all want to get back to our beautiful college campuses, we will do so in a thoughtful and deliberate way,” said the district’s Chancellor Michael Claire. “We are optimistic that as vaccines become more widely distributed in the summer and fall we will be able to restore more in-person classes and services to students next year.”

Most colleges still working on the details

Most colleges have not posted their fall plans. But underscoring the variability in the system, and the importance of checking out what each college will be doing, Antelope Valley College in Lancaster in Southern California, is trying to move all students and staff back by the fall. In a message posted on March 3, university officials explained, that “our goal is to slowly repopulate the campus over the remainder of the spring semester and summer session, and to be fully reopened at the beginning of the fall semester.”

By contrast, in a more typical scenario, Glendale Community College President David Viar explained that his campus will “continue to conduct classes in a remote learning environment through Dec. 15, 2o21.”

That’s because, he said, “the nation and the community are a long way from reaching the point where we can safely bring students back.”

* Story originally published by EdSource.