Three candidates are in the running for Portland Community College president.

Portland Community College is preparing for some more in-person courses this fall, but also a continued emphasis on online instruction.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

While the majority of Oregon’s public universities have made big announcements about returning to campus in the fall for primarily in-person classes, the situation is less clear for the thousands of Oregon students attending the state’s community colleges. The approach varies more from campus to campus, with many continuing to keep classes mostly online.

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For Portland Community College, the fall term is going to look similar in many ways to how the campus is operating currently — with a bulk of classes remaining completely remote.

“We are more cautious and careful in our reopening, and part of that has to do with our open-access mission,” said Kurt Simonds, dean of academic and student affairs operations at PCC. “We take everyone who comes, and we want to remove as many barriers as we can from students attending our classes.”

PCC is Oregon’s largest post-secondary institution, with roughly 60,000 students enrolled per year. Many of those students are older than the “traditional” college student and might have jobs and families.

Simonds said the college’s plan is to move into a “sustained reopening” during the fall, though that will be officially decided in July.

While currently only courses that need to be offered in-person are being held on campus, like those for specific medical training programs, the sustained reopening model will broaden in-person offerings to include classes like art studios and outdoor physical education.

But, many classes are still left off that list.

Matthew Stockton serves as PCC’s faculty department chair of philosophy and psychology, as well as the faculty union’s executive vice president.

Stockton said it’s hard to generalize about students’ perspectives, since PCC, and community colleges in general, serve such a wide range of students.

Some aspects of online learning have been very helpful to students, Stockton said, especially synchronous remote classes — live classes that take place over Zoom in which students can interact in real-time with their instructor and other classmates.

He said remote synchronous learning during the pandemic “liberates many students from the burdens associated with the costs of transportation, physical health, and child care while still giving them the personal and dynamic classroom experience.”

According to a recent survey, with more than 3,000 responding PCC students, many students agree.

When asked what they would choose if they were given the option for online or on-campus classes in the fall, more than 43% of students said they would select online options for all of their classes. Thirty-five percent of students said they would opt for a hybrid mix of online and in-person classes, and more than 18% said they would prefer attending all of their classes in person.

Stockton said allowing students to learn online has been a “real asset” for PCC to work toward more equitable practices, but on the other hand, learning and teaching solely online is not preferred by everyone.

“We cannot meet the needs of all students if we’re deprived of the opportunity and resources necessary to do so,” Stockton wrote in an email to OPB. “PCC’s trepidation in reopening campuses is impeding and/or compromising the ability of faculty to fully meet student demand and be responsive to their particular needs. It’s like trying to help lift someone up using only one hand.”

Stockton said the faculty union, the PCC Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals, is not pushing for a mandated return to all in-person classes, but he said the option should still be there for students who want or need it.

“Equitable practices encourage us to offer up options and support systems that safely accommodate as many people as we can on this spectrum,” Stockton said. “Instead, PCC is gatekeeping which programs are eligible to return while excluding others. This, in turn, is depriving a lot of students and instructors access to the best learning conditions.”

Stockton noted that PCC’s reopening plan looks a lot different from other community colleges in the state.

Easier for rural colleges to offer in-person instruction

Cam Preus, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association says the reopening plans for the community colleges is a “mixed bag.”

“We have some colleges that have actually held face-to-face classes since last fall,” Preus said. “The vast majority have had some hybrid, some limited face-to-face primarily in career and technical programs, and much of the rest of the programming being offered online.”

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She said there are many different reasons for this, like location and size.

Preus used Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, on the Oregon-Idaho state line, as an example of a college that has held in-person classes during the pandemic.

TVCC had about 5,300 students enrolled last academic year, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

“They were small enough that they were able to manage that, and that’s not the same reality at Portland Community College or some of our larger colleges where there are tens of thousands of people that come and go on their campuses,” Preus said.

TVCC also has students already residing on-campus, in a residence hall, which isn’t the case for the majority of other community colleges in the state.

Klamath Community College, in Klamath Falls, has also been able to retain face-to-face classes during the pandemic — not only with hands-on, technical training programs but with lecture-style classes too.

It has about one-tenth the number of students as Portland Community College.

“When you’re talking about serving 60,000 students or serving six [thousand], the logistics are very different,” said Jamie Jennings, vice president of academic affairs at KCC. “When we make changes and accommodate our students’ needs, it’s much easier for us ... We’re a small, rural community college and the larger urban and suburban community colleges wouldn’t be able to afford what we can do.”

She continued: “When we offer these face-to-face classes, we have a fairly generous campus to work with, relative to our student population.”

Currently, two-thirds of KCC’s students are online and one-third are face-to-face, Jennings said. Normally, outside of the pandemic, it would be the opposite split.

For the fall, Jennings said, the school is planning for whatever the “new normal” might look like — depending on the needs of both students and faculty.

Currently, KCC is planning on setting up a model that’s half remote offerings and half in-person. That’ll help alleviate the workload for instructors who have been teaching online and in-person classes.

“We want to switch back to, in the fall, removing the remote as much as possible because it’s a difficult lift for our faculty to do face-to-face and remote instruction,” Jennings said. “We’re hoping for face-to-face and online, students choose one or the other.”

But, Jennings said that will be flexible, so if more students need more face-to-face classes or more online opportunities, the school can shift.

Vaccines not a mandate at community colleges

So far, none of Oregon’s community colleges have announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the coming academic year.

Jennings said the community college has been sending out messages to students and faculty to encourage them to get vaccinated, but she said KCC is going to “wait and see” on further guidance from agencies like the Oregon Health Authority and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The same conversations are happening in Portland.

“We’re talking about it,” Simonds with PCC said. “We’re studying it, but we haven’t made a decision about if we would do a vaccine mandate.”

Simonds said PCC’s plans for the fall term are not yet set in stone, and there could be opportunities for more courses to be offered in person. He said the college has begun having conversations with faculty in departments like math and writing.

“We’re [also] talking with additional science faculty about labs in those areas and the possibility of adding a limited number of on-campus options in some of our large, highly-enrolled courses,” Simonds said, noting the importance of offering courses face-to-face, “that either are really best taught in a lab or a hands-on learning environment, or for students who are maybe more in the beginning of their educational journey and need the support of being in class.”

Simonds also noted that in the fall, other services like the computer labs, libraries, food pantry, athletics and potentially child care, will also become available.

He acknowledged that it is “a concern” that some students who might want more of a face-to-face fall term could end up going to other institutions. Nearby Portland State University announced earlier this year that it was planning for a predominately in-person fall.

“We have an enrollment loss along with all other community colleges during the pandemic,” Simonds said. “We’ve started to see some more hopeful enrollment information for spring term, and we hope we can get the right mix of classes so that students will come back and stay with us. We’re still the most affordable option, relative to a four-year university, certainly.”

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