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SRJC’s cautious approach to mostly remote fall semester: Masking, no vaccine requirement

When Santa Rosa Junior College announced in April that its fall semester would stay “largely remote," nearly 206,000 Sonoma County residents were about to become newly eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Sonoma State University, the other major local institution of higher education, was planning to return to in-person instruction in the fall. K-12 schools were finishing out the spring in hybrid mode. The future as it related to the pandemic looked bright.

Still, to Will Dithrich, a computer science student, the SRJC’s decision made sense.

“Part of my philosophy is hope for the best, plan for the worst,” he said. “I felt like it was in the spirit of putting the safety of students and staff first.”

SRJC President Frank Chong said in April the uncertain outlook of vaccine deployment from then until school returned in August had guided him toward the decision to stay mostly virtual even as other schools made plans to open broadly.

Now, with a countywide vaccination rate hovering stubbornly near 70% and county health officers reviving indoor mask mandates over a surge in cases attributed to the highly infectious delta variant, the SRJC’s cautious approach seems amazingly prescient.

“Hopefully it’s the right decision,” Chong said in an interview last week. “We based it on safety factors.”

Santa Rosa Junior College will offer more in-person classes this fall than at any other point during the pandemic, but even so, about two-thirds of its courses will still be held remotely.

Beyond the “essential services” classes, such as law enforcement, nursing and firefighting, which were allowed to resume in-person elements a year ago, now some liberal arts classes such as English will also move back onto campus, Chong said.

Masks required, vaccines, not yet

Those who venture onto campus for classes will be required to wear masks.

But diverging from the vaccine mandates for students and staff instated by the University of California and California State University systems, the junior college does not plan at this point to make a similar requirement of its students, faculty and staff.

“We’re not there yet,” Chong said. “We’ll see whether state or public health folks decide to move in that direction.”

Chong said he hopes for officials at the state level to offer direction or guidance to California’s community colleges.

“We don’t want to make a decision based on politics or enrollment,” he said. “I believe there needs to be a systems approach rather than leaving it to the colleges to make this decision.”

While enrollment numbers are not finalized, by early August, it was already clear the pandemic continued a trend of downward enrollment at Santa Rosa Junior College. The local decline is in keeping with a trend of lower enrollment at the majority of California community colleges.

As of Tuesday, enrollment stood at 14,255 students, including both part-time and full-time students. That number is rising daily, however, while enrollment stays open through Aug. 22, said Pedro Avila, vice president of student services. Classes begin Aug. 16.

Final enrollment in fall of 2020 was 19,283 students, Avila said. The current number represents about a 26% decline, though more students are still expected to sign up for classes.

“We anticipate that as we get closer to the semester, more people will enroll and we hope we’ll see a single-digit decline instead of a double-digit one,” Chong said.

Go for the game, stay home for the Zoom

Student life will begin to return to campus with the help of newly built outdoor spaces expanded with funds from Measure H. Students will be able to meet for club activities or study sessions at spaces equipped with power strips and Wifi access, Avila said.

Some sports will return, including SRJC football, which already publicized its fall schedule. Students will be able to attend games.

Other events will remain on Zoom. Orientation and welcome events, for example, will be held virtually, starting on Aug. 12. Student and faculty government meetings will also remain virtual for the fall semester.

Still, some students, such as Dithrich, are unlikely to find many reason to head to campus even with the increased activity. But he doesn’t mind.

Earlier this year, Dithrich and some classmates launched a new web design company, Northern California Creative. He said he can’t imagine having to go to campus frequently while trying to get the business off the ground.

It was the slowdown in the restaurant industry during the pandemic that helped push him to enroll at the junior college last fall, Dithrich said. He had wanted to try a new career for several years.

And still, Dithrich added, he prefers to see the school err on the side of caution.

“This pandemic always seems to have another card up its sleeve,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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