Community colleges lean on virtual classes as they plan fall reopen

Labs, small number of other classes to be held in person as most of course return virtually
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Categories: News, Schenectady County

CAPITAL REGION — Local community colleges plan to continue most courses remotely this fall semester, while allowing some students on campus for small lab-style classes.

SUNY Schenectady and Hudson Valley Community College on Tuesday both announced reopening plans, which were developed by each campus and approved by SUNY officials in recent days. Both schools outlined plans to host a small share of fall courses on campus while continuing the bulk of courses in a remote format.

“This is the best approach for us to take in order to keep you safe while you focus on your academic studies,” SUNY Schenectady Steady Moono said in a message posted to the school’s website Tuesday.

SUNY Schenectady said it plans to host some lab courses on campus – courses in the music school, hotel and culinary program and math and sciences – while continuing all lecture-style courses remotely.

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The lab courses will consist of six to eight students and be conducted on a schedule intended to facilitate social distancing, according to the plans. Lab work stations will be marked to promote social distance. College officials have mapped out a diagram of each lab class to ensure the best possible social distancing plans.

“We went through the exercise of measuring every classroom in the college and figuring out how many people could fit there,” Moono said in a Tuesday interview.

The college will focus on holding in-person classes for the most hands-on programs like culinary, music and the sciences. But even some classes in those programs will be conducted virtually and all courses are preparing to potentially have to shift online on short notice. Far less than half of the college’s fall course offering will be conducted in person, said David Clickner, SUNY Schenectady vice president for academic affairs.

“What do we need to put in place in case we need to transition back online?” Clickner said of the college’s contingency planning in case a move to all-online courses is necessary in the middle of the semester.

Hudson Valley Community College said a majority of its 1,600 classes this fall would be held online, while campus would open for a “limited number of on-campus/in-person lecture courses, labs and hybrid classes.” The college plans to have students distanced while in class and have contingencies to move casses online if necessary. Hudson Valley also announced a tuition freeze for the fall semester. Moono said he expected SUNY Schenectady to have a “minimal” tuition increase but that the college would remain one of the top five cheapest SUNY schools in the state.

Fulton-Montgomery Community College also recently earned state approval for its reopening plan, which like other community colleges will look to return science labs and other hands-on classes to in-person instruction while continuing a variety of virtual learning formats into the fall semester. Jane Kelley, FMCC vice president of students affairs, said she expected about 30 percent of the college’s courses to be taught in person. Some courses will also mix some in-person instruction with remote instruction.

“We will deliver the education the best way possible for you,” Kelley said of the school’s message to students.

SUNY Adirondack also released plans to offer classes both remotely and in person, limiting in-person classes to 50 percent capacity and require students and faculty to wear face coverings while in class.

“Many classes not requiring hands-on instruction will be conducted on a remote-learning basis,” according to plans outlined by SUNY Adirondack officials. “Courses that include hands-on laboratory or studio instruction, such as art, music, culinary, and science and technology programs, where practicable, will be conducted with face-to-face instruction at 50 percent of the lab or studio occupancy capacity.”

The colleges will also limit access to campus and ramp up monitoring of students, staff and visitors. At SUNY Schenectady, students and staff coming to campus will enter and exit campus through one of four entry points, and they will be required to sign in and provide details about where they are going on campus. If someone on campus later tests positive for COVID-19, that information will be used to trace and contact people who may have come in contact with them while on campus.

“We must screen every individual entering our buildings on a daily basis,” Moono said. “In the event a member of our campus contracts the virus, we will have a record of who was on campus at the same time and may have come into contact with that person.”

The community college plans appear less aggressive in returning students to campus than the plans announced in recent days by private colleges in the region. Private colleges across the region have outlined plans to bring most students back to campus in the fall, relying on a combination of in-person and remote instruction coupled with regular infection testing and plans to contact trace and isolate in the event of positive test results. Both students and faculty members are also being given the flexibility to opt out of in-person instruction over health concerns.

The private colleges, which will be welcoming students back to campus from across the country, have promised to test students as they return to campus and plan to isolate students who test positive for COVID-19 infection in campus housing set aside for quarantine purposes.

The community colleges, which are primarily commuter schools, did not indicate plans to test students directly but will be asking students and staff to monitor their own health and report any symptoms.

Community college officials said students have largely been waiting for more information about the fall semester to emerge before registering for courses, suggesting a full tally of how the academic uncertainty facing so many families will impact community college enrollments. While the college officials were still waiting to see how many students would sign up for classes this fall, they were also hopeful that some local residents would see the value proposition of a community college education in a new light.

With many private colleges asking some students to stay home for at least another semester or asking students to return to campus to still take some online classes, community colleges could serve as a cost-saving measure for students and families uneasy about committing to a pricey residential college in the middle of a pandemic.

“There is no loss for a students to come here, get their foundation courses (and transfer to a four-year college),” Moono said. 

Kelley, the FMCC vice president, said she also thinks it’s possible to make the case that community colleges can fill a gap for students looking to earn some core college credits while waiting out campus restrictions due to the pandemic.

“I’m hearing that from my admissions folks, that students, especially our local population, can choose FM and get a semester or two out of the way here and wait a semester or two for it to be safer to be a residential student,” Kelley said.

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