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Why Saddleback College Expects to Be 90 Percent Online for Fall

This community college was one of the first to announce its plans for the fall semester. And no matter what students might prefer, they won't be returning to standard classroom settings anytime soon.

closeup of hands on laptop

Many colleges and universities are beginning to announce plans for delivery of courses during the summer — mostly, word is, those classes will be offered online. But few have broached the topic of what they're intending to do in the fall. One of the earliest exceptions was Saddleback College, a community college in Southern California. In a letter sent to students in mid-April, President Elliot Stern announced that "most lecture-based classes" would be scheduled for online delivery. The priority for any on-campus courses would be "lab, studio and other hands-on learning."

We recently interviewed Stern to understand how his institution was making those decisions. The basic answer: by looking at the data. Stern also shared his expectations regarding student enrollment numbers (they're looking high), explained his philosophy about "incremental negativity" (people can only handle so much bad news) and told us what he's scared of.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Campus Technology: Recently, you told your campus that the college would be taking classes online for summer and probably for fall too. How have you been making those decisions about the campus response to COVID-19?

Elliot Stern

Elliot Stern: We're committing to probably 90 percent online for fall. [To make those decisions, we're using] a combination of things. We're looking at the modeling that public health professionals are looking at, and we watch that modeling pretty closely both nationally and locally. We have an emergency operating command group that has a meeting every day, and we share that data and talk about those numbers and where we're going in the county and region. We try to make sure we're being data-informed in the decision-making. We consult with public health officials, particularly through the [Orange County] Health Care Agency and the state health care agency.

And then, ultimately, we're reading the newspaper just like you are and everybody else is, and we watch what Governor [Gavin] Newsom is doing and what he's saying. For instance, he recently laid out a six-step list of criteria that indicated what we would need in order to lift the state-wide order [of sheltering in place]. And we're far away from being able to achieve those things

As we've looked at these things, we've made decisions based on the data, trying to look at a certain level of probability — say, 90 percent — and ask, is there any chance we're going to be able to bring students back to a lecture-size classroom in fall? And no. There's almost no chance of that. If you look at the modeling, if you look where flattening of the curve finally gets us down to a level of disease that could be contained, it's going to take another couple of months in the summer.

And then we're seeing examples in Singapore and South Korea and Hong Kong that as soon as we start easing those restrictions, we now have modeling available to show us how the disease starts to uptick again.

That being the case, we know there's a high likelihood of having a second or even third wave this fall or winter. And I just don't want to take the chance of having students packed into a classroom when a second wave of community-acquired disease comes through.

There was some analysis done in a paper I read a few days ago that used mathematics to show if you take all the contacts that a student has in his or her lifetime and now bring him or her into the classroom with other students with an equal number of contacts, how quickly disease would spread. It's almost a logarithmic spread through campus. And this is why we've seen campus outbreaks of measles, for instance, over the years. When you bring people into close confined quarters and don't honor social distancing, that's exactly what happens.

What we're looking at now is what we can do to continue social distancing at a safe level. And that means not being bringing people into lecture classrooms for some time.

But at some point we need to return to learning integrity. That means our health science students have to actually start handling patients again. There's just so much we can do with science lab virtualization, and at some point they have to learn how to handle a micropipette. We know that in fine arts classes the instructor has to be able to see the hand movements of the student in a drawing class to be able to coach them and guide them. We know that ceramics pieces need to be baked off in a kiln, and most students don't have kilns at home.

Anything else that can be taught virtually we're going to try to teach virtually, because you know what? We are getting better and better at it, and I think there's going to be a long-term change as a result of this.

CT: Early on, the courses at Saddleback were moved online with some exceptions such as the labs and studio classes. How did that work out for the college? Did students show up? Were those classes shut down?

Stern: Our last day of open campus for classes was March 13. That was the last day of midterms. We had spring break that followed immediately after that Friday. And we were just hanging on, looking at the numbers really closely, knowing that if there was a case of community-acquired disease in Orange County, we would get everybody out of there immediately.

And here's the interesting thing. If you look back at the data, we got lucky. There was not a single community-acquired case in Orange County until the evening of the Friday the 13th. That was our last day of class.

Here's the thing that I will admit in retrospect, with greater reflection. Without adequate testing those numbers were not terribly helpful. And the reality is that we may have had community-acquired disease in Orange County at that time and may have been putting people at risk. But I have to say we didn't know that. We didn't know the extent of lack of testing and the extent to which that underplayed the number of cases in the county.

One more thing I want to say about this broad question of how we make these assessments. There is a term that I've developed for myself called "incremental negativity."

I think the human psyche can only take so much bad news at a time, and there are decisions that I know I could make right now for a few months out — maybe six months out — based on data and science. But I need to take my time helping people understand that data and bring that up piece by piece, incrementally — so we don't overwhelm people and deprive them of hope.

We are going to get through it and I'm very hopeful. But it is going to take some time and I don't think people back in March were ready to hear that — even though the evidence was pretty strong. I think we knew we were headed for a hard close by the first or second week of March.

CT: Yet, given your philosophy of incremental negativity, you have chosen to announce that most of Saddleback's classes are going to be online in the fall — rather than waiting until the summer to announce that. Why did you make that announcement at this time versus waiting?

Stern: The things I'm willing to wait on and hold back on in the philosophy of incremental negativity might be certain events and things people are looking forward to. We delayed making an announcement about commencement even though I knew there was no way we were going to pack 2,000 people into a gymnasium. That wasn't going to happen. But we took our time announcing that.

But with classes and knowing our schedule, we have an obligation to tell people as early as possible so they can make plans around it. I'm hearing many stories about students opting out of university attendance next year based on the cost of tuition — let alone out-of-state tuition — if they're going to do distance learning. Well, I want those students who are thinking about that to know we're not going to be on the ground either. If you're coming home because you think you're going to have on-the-ground classes in a community college, that's not the case. I'm not exposing you to that sort of risk.

And, of course, for our existing students, I want them to be able to make plans and know if they're struggling with distance learning and want to think about different options, they should do that. But that's the kind of information I think we need to be very transparent about.

I'm a little surprised, to be perfectly honest with you, that more colleges haven't announced what they're doing for fall.

There's nothing that I'm looking at in the modeling that they don't have access to. There's no decision that I'm making that is going to be judged premature and overly pessimistic in retrospect. The data is in front of us and all the public health experts are saying the same thing — that social distancing is around for a long time.

There's no way to guarantee social distancing in a typical university or college setting with typical classrooms. Not only can we not assure six feet of distance between students in classrooms, but we've just been spending the last few days trying to figure out how we're going to do it in labs and studios.

It's incredibly complicated getting students out of the classroom through one or two doors and maintaining a six-foot distance. Getting them down the halls, getting them through the ingress and egress doors of the building itself, if students are leaving classes all at one time in the schedule. That's incredibly complicated. It's a logistical challenge. To think about doing it with 27,000 students is out of the question. It's going to be really hard just to manage with a couple of thousand students.

CT: Is that how many students you expect in the fall, 27,000?

Stern: That's our normal census. And when we look at what we're bringing to campus based on those priorities that I explained to you, we think it's going to be less than 10 percent — 2,000 would be at the upper end of it at any given time.

And by the way those won't be all at the same time in the term. We're hoping to do an altered schedule that students can get this hands-on learning out of the way in less than a full term. And that way, if we haven't sufficiently flattened by the start of the term, we could start late. If we start the term and then have to close again, we could end prematurely just as we did before and send people home, but still have accomplished something.

The schedule is the most complicated we have ever created, and I have to credit really brilliant leadership and faculty leaders for being able to create that.

CT: That emergency operating command group that you mentioned, what kinds of roles do you have on that?

Stern: It's myself. It's my three vice presidents, who represent administrative services, student services and instruction. It's our chief of police as well as his lieutenant, who is also an expert in [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], because FEMA is a big part of this. And our emergency operations center [EOC] commander for all this is Jeanne Harris-Caldwell, a dean of wellness, social services and child development services. She is a public health nurse herself. She's the director of our student health center and has been really important to advising me and overseeing much of our command work.

All of us get together every single day as the policy team. And then there's a larger EOC structure that meets for 90 minutes before that, which I don't participate in. They bring recommendations to the policy team that I do sit on.

CT: Traditionally, community college enrollment goes way up during these periods of high unemployment. I'm assuming that happened for Saddleback back in in the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

Stern: Even though I wasn't here then, I can assure you that it did because I've seen the data and it happened in the colleges that I've been at.

We are definitely countercyclical. I think there have been some suggestions out there that it may not work this way this time because students are looking at the prospect of all-distance learning and saying, "I'm not going to do it if it's going to be all distant."

I've been speculating and thinking, no, I think we're going to be very busy. Well, we started registration about a week ago for summer, and we are up in [full-time student enrollment] — FTE was up by 28 percent. That's an overwhelming year-over-year increase. Probably beyond our capacity, but we're going to do what we can to accommodate those students

I think the biggest factor in that are the recently unemployed folks. [By April 30, 2020, unemployment nationwide had hit 30 million people. In California it was 3.2 million by April 23.] Ultimately, that means tens if not hundreds of thousands in Orange County and in our region. So those are folks in my community, and our mission is to serve our community, and we need to help them get back to work as quickly as we can

So we're trying to create what we call "shadow classes," additional classes that we're ready to open at the flick of a switch as other classes fill up so that we can nimbly respond to a larger-than-expected enrollment spike that's probably going to hit in fall, let alone the one we're already experiencing — it looks like — for summer.

CT: Do you think that this move to widespread online learning will help in serving a greater number of students?

Stern: That's a tricky question. I think it helps provide access for those who might not be able to reach our campus because of transportation. In particular, we've been experiencing flat or slight decline in enrollment for the last few years up until this last one, in part because of the cost of living in our area. It's hard for students to live in our service area with the cost of living is as high as it is. Distance learning does open up options for students who might live in more affordable areas to attend Saddleback.

At the same time we're a little worried because part of who we serve in the community college system are at-risk students and students who may have struggled in traditional learning environments. They need the human support, they need the high-touch service and support that we provide, and they need their relationship with faculty and support folks on campus. And trying to replicate that with distance ed is really challenging. It is not easy to inject the humanity into technology and into distance ed. We think we're pretty good at it, but that was with a minority of faculty that were already doing this.

The majority of our faculty are online for the first time this semester. We have a lot more training and a lot more skills to develop in terms of providing that high-touch, humane and warm-and-fuzzy experience that we are very good at providing in the classroom.

CT: The school has a food pantry. It has issued devices to students who didn't have them. It is providing help with emergency needs. You're going to need to provide extra supports now that students are taking classes online. All of those efforts cost money. Is it going to be sustainable?

Stern: I think we want to take it a day at a time. I don't mean to be incrementally negative there. What I mean is that I don't know whether this is going to be V-shaped or whether this is going to be a prolonged period where we need to adapt either to distance learning or higher enrollment over a longer period than we're anticipating.

What we're trying to do is free up all the resources we can and find ways of doing things on the cheap because not all of this costs money. Yes, a lot of it does, but a lot of it has involved creativity and innovation by faculty and staff. A lot of what you just mentioned — including our food pantry and our grocery handouts — we do by grants and by donations. In one of our Friday updates I appealed to people to donate to our emergency fund for students before we received any federal funding. Within two days we had raised $16,000 from our own employees.

A lot of the emergency funding right now — it's a combination of federal funds under the CARES Act and emergency funds from our foundation.

So, the things that I'm most worried about in terms of our ability to get through this crisis over the long haul are, first, can I keep building additional classes to meet the increased demands of enrollment due to the economy being what it is? And second, what are the lost revenues that we're trying to deal with as a result of students going online?

Next semester and going forward it's going to be hard for me to justify charging students a parking fee if they're not coming to campus at all and using our parking facilities. But I still have a police force to pay; I still have paving that I need to do and striping that I need to refresh every year. How do we keep doing those things if our organizational structure and our cost structure has changed dramatically?

Over time we can make changes to the budget, but it's really hard to do that at a public university when we're trying to keep everybody with a permanent job fully operational and fully employed. The last thing I want to be doing is contributing to the rolls of the unemployed.

This is a tough time. But I have to say, a crisis brings out the best in people in my experience. I tend to be right at the edge of Pollyannishness, but hopefully not over the edge.

My college has come together in really remarkable ways to do amazing work. We saw 250 faculty come in during break to go through a workshop, to learn how to use Canvas, who had never used a learning management system before. They got paid two hours for a workshop. That's not worth their time if they didn't have their heart in it and if they didn't want to do it well for students.

When we hit a crisis and we focus on students and what our students are going through and we call on people to focus on that, they come together in amazing ways.

Good things are coming out of this. In student services I think Zoom has been such a godsend for all of us, even on a personal level for maintaining relationships, for meetings and for doing open forums, for keeping our community going and keeping our relationships going with students. There is high value in looking somebody in the eye and checking those subtle facial cues and expressions. And I think being able to videoconference really changes the online picture.

Even the way we deliver distance ed will change after COVID. I really believe that people will see value in synchronous education, even if it's online, that they may not have seen before. I think people will identify new ways to create a sense of community within a class that maybe we weren't conscious of before. And I think whole campuses will figure out that community and cohort building and peer-to-peer relationships and faculty-peer relationships are just as important as all the other supports we provide students.

We have to find ways of delivering those even if it's online. COVID-19 is showing us ways to deliver that. Really good things are going to come out of this. It's just how long it takes to come out of it that scares me a little bit.

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