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By Eric Kaljumägi

After months of a nearly purple state coronavirus map, California began to show clear signs of recovery from the virus’s peak in late January, and a majority of California’s counties went to the red tier in March. While dozens of Californians are still dying each day from this dread disease, entry to the red tier allows for colleges to open, and most of our institutions are planning to do exactly that.

Several CCA colleges have developed a reopening plan that includes a phase for each of the four color tiers. For example, at Southwestern College, purple only allows for public safety and allied health, but red adds approved “hard to convert to online” courses, orange calls for a “tiered return” with expanded offerings, and the full return to campus is delayed until the yellow phase. You can read the details at bit.ly/2OJSkFx.

Other colleges are hoping for a faster transition. In a recent letter from the district, Riverside CCD stated that their goal was “to open the campuses in the fall to the furthest degree possible,” while Mt. San Antonio College is looking for “about 80% in-person.”

Quite a few colleges are still on the fence; for example, the Willits News recently described Mendocino College as expecting to “transition to more face-to-face classes for fall 2021.” This aligns with the public four-year institutions, as both the CSU and UC are planning for considerably more in-person courses without yet explaining exactly what that means.

The good news for faculty is that 10% of California’s vaccines were set aside for school employees (including higher education employees) starting March 1, and even in hard-hit San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties many faculty are reporting that they are now able to obtain vaccination appointments.

However, some CCA members are expressing concern about their personal situations. I have heard from faculty who have been advised by their doctors not to take the vaccine. Multiple faculty have noted that the new coronavirus variants appear to be at least somewhat vaccine resistant, and they worry about catching a serious illness even if vaccinated. Many faculty have expressed concern for their minor children and for their students, since it is still uncertain whether everyone who wants a vaccination will be able to receive one by the start of the fall semester. According to our July 2020 survey, almost one-third of faculty identified as having the CDC’s “at-risk” factors for COVID-19. At the time, 44% of CCA members were not comfortable returning to in-person instruction until a vaccine existed. Now that it does, discomfort persists.

While our colleges’ rapid transition to the online environment was remarkable, a lot of students haven’t transitioned with us. The Chancellor’s Office recently reported that in fall 2020, overall student headcount dropped systemwide by approximately 15% to 16%, and overall enrollments (FTES) fell approximately 11% to 12%. The reductions were not uniform, as student headcount changes ranged from a slight increase at some colleges to declines of over 30%. Enrollment (FTES) likewise ranged from flat to a stunning 30% decline.

Our enrollment losses are probably due, at least in part, to our online-only environment. A November 2020 report by Course Hero noted that 87% of faculty nationwide believed that COVID-19 made their jobs more challenging and three-quarters reported a loss of connection to their colleagues or students. Some college students feel much the same way. When surveyed at one CCA college, 19% of students surveyed reported having a “bad” or “terrible” experience with remote instruction. These students are very likely looking forward to a return to campus.

Reduced enrollment means reduced sections available to teach, so our part-time faculty have been seriously affected by these enrollment declines. Many part-time faculty have described significant reductions to their workload, and consequently their income. To make ends meet, some are driving for Uber, Instacart or Amazon, and others are selling possessions or even moving in order to find less expensive housing. We will permanently lose both students and faculty from the system if we do not reopen our campuses.

Late last year, CTA President E. Toby Boyd issued a press release stating that “the safety of students, their families and educators must be the top priority.” Our members agree, since according to our survey, CCA members overwhelmingly (over 94%) want health and safety precautions in place, including hand washing, sanitation of surfaces, social distancing, masks, and gloves when we reopen. While we did not ask about air filtration in that survey, it’s pretty clear that ventilation is also of significant importance.

The current Cal/OSHA higher education guidance (September 2020) mandates face coverings, a prevention plan, and desks spaced at least 6 feet apart. The guidance also calls for healthy hygiene practices, a strong recommendation to be vaccinated against influenza, increased cleaning frequency, and improved ventilation to “MERV-13 or the highest feasible level.” In the red tier, lectures are to be capped at 25% of the room’s capacity (or 100, whichever is lower), while at the orange and yellow tiers, the limitation is 50%. Student activities and dining facilities have the same percentage restrictions, but some exceptions exist, such as for lab courses.

Your local union will need to work out the details with your district’s administration. How much is “increased” cleaning frequency? Will some classrooms be left closed because the “highest feasible level” isn’t good enough? How will your district address the faculty who do not desire the COVID-19 vaccine or those who are fearful even once vaccinated? Please keep an eye on your email should your local union quickly need your support. If ever there was a time that we needed to act together, this is it!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an advisory document this past December that describes the risk of various educational activities. Riding on buses and shuttles, sharing physical objects, dining without social distancing, and inadequate cleaning made the list of “highest risk.” We know enough about this coronavirus to mitigate its risks, and we must ensure a low-risk workplace as we recover from red to orange to yellow. I’m looking forward to green, myself.