Education

A Different First Day | Confessions of a Community College Dean

Wednesday was the first day of the spring semester.

It felt like a first day, but not to the extent that it used to in pre-COVID times.

We’re running classes in multiple formats—in person, remote live, hybrid and asynchronous online. Prior to COVID, we were overwhelmingly in person; now, it’s around half (depending on whether you’re counting students or sections). We haven’t been immune to the national drop in enrollments at community colleges, and spring enrollments are almost always lower than fall enrollments. So combining a sectoral downward enrollment trend with a seasonal trend, and then moving about half of the remaining enrollments online, led to a less crowded campus than is typical for a first day.

In some ways, that’s great. Parking has not been the headache that it used to be. To the extent that less crowding helps prevent contagion, that’s obviously good. It has also made management of the test-or-vax mandate somewhat easier than it would have been if twice as many students were showing up.

Admittedly, “easier” doesn’t mean “easy.” This has been a heavy lift. I tip my cap to the folks in Student Affairs who have done yeoman’s work to make it happen. Our rule is that everyone on campus has to be either vaxed (with documentation uploaded to our system) or tested on a weekly basis (with documentation uploaded to our system). They also have to wear masks while indoors on campus. Students can opt out by being entirely online, but even students who are entirely online have to attest that they’re entirely online (and indicate that in our system). Students taking classes in high schools follow the rules of the high school.

I’m glad that we’ve covered as many bases as we have, but implementation is a bit of a beast. Some folks registered at the last minute and then tested at the last minute, creating a backlog. There’s an inevitable delay between the test and receiving the results of the test. Uploading documentation proved challenging for many. Testing capacity can be an issue. And there’s no shortage of “but what about” scenarios requiring quick custom decisions. Given all of that, a smaller crowd on opening day has a silver lining.

As necessary as they are, conversations about safety measures have taken up some of the bandwidth that would normally have been devoted to more aspirational goals. That makes sense; health is as basic a need as food and transportation.

The return of the students brought back that sense of aspiration. They brought it with them. They’re here to improve their lives. That obviously entails survival, but it’s so much more than that. And on the first day of class, nobody is behind yet. Anything is possible. Someone will surprise themselves by discovering a talent or a passion they didn’t know they had. Someone will have that lightbulb moment when everything suddenly clicks. Someone will turn a corner.

Welcome back, everyone. I’m glad you’re here.

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