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COVID-19’s Impact on the Architecture of Community Colleges

By June 18, 2020

By: Dr. Brian King, Chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District

The four colleges in the Los Rios Community College District serve more than 70,000 students in the capital region of Sacramento, California. Los Rios has survived floods, smoke from wildfires, and dramatic economic challenges, but nothing quite like COVID-19.

Many of the heroic responses to protect the safety of our students, faculty, staff, and community may reflect permanent and positive changes in the architecture of community colleges in California and across the United States.

72 Hours to Prepare for 100% Remote Operations

Student learning remotely from home

On March 12, Los Rios announced that we would suspend in-person instruction. We established the ambitious goal of transitioning to 100% remote operations beginning on March 18. Within 72 hours, we were able to shift to a fully-remote district. Our four colleges rapidly mobilized to secure and distribute laptop computers to students who lacked the technology to continue their studies remotely. We also provided mobile hotspots when needed.

Though we initially hoped to return to a more normal schedule as soon as possible, Los Rios has decided to offer courses primarily online this fall. We are more acutely aware of the digital divide and have established a Digital Equity Task Force to confront the reality that some of our most vulnerable students were also those least prepared to continue their studies remotely. The goals of the Task Force are to provide broadband access at home to all students and to ensure they have the technology tools as well as the training needed to be successful. We plan to continue the Task Force after the pandemic ends.

The transition to remote operations for student services has prompted a variety of innovative uses of technology. Many of these positive changes were either already under way or under consideration, but the urgency of the transition to remote services resulted in rapid digital transformation.

An example of swift adaptation involves counseling and advising. Before the pandemic, essentially all student counseling and advising was done face-to-face on campus in thirty-minute appointments. Following the 72-hour remote transition period, all of these student interactions moved from in-person to online.

The Pandemic and Budget Cuts

As if transitioning to 100% remote operations in 72 hours is not enough of a challenge, Los Rios also recognizes that the personal and economic devastation caused by COVID-19 will cause dramatic reductions in the level of state support our colleges will receive in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Given the inevitable economic impact of COVID-19 on the budget cycle, strategic investments in technology will be a vital part of preparing to serve students during a period of reduced state support.

A digital-first focus will inevitably shape the architecture of community colleges, and it will also enable us to help more students at scale. For instance, we can now serve students through online courses in programs that previously we thought were difficult, if not impossible, to execute. Students who were unable to attend one of our colleges in person because of work or family responsibilities can now access higher education in a more flexible way that works for them.

The New Architecture: Changes That May Last

In future years, the Los Rios colleges may look back on the current crisis as a partial catalyst for some very positive changes for our students and the way we work together to address systems of inequality that have become even more clear in the spotlight of the pandemic.

Los Rios Community College student

While Los Rios will always predominantly provide classes that involve face-to-face instruction, our creative and talented faculty will develop online courses in disciplines that some thought could not be taught online. All of us yearn for the return of students to our colleges, which brings tremendous energy and excitement to the face-to-face classroom experience. However, our reopening plans likely won’t come into effect until early 2021. Now we will have the benefit of a greater understanding of the potential of online education, particularly in addressing equity issues for students who simply do not have access to in-person instruction.

Through this period, we’ve shown that high-tech and high-touch don’t have to be in opposition. Many of the services we have converted to remote operations are likely to continue to be provided remotely once the pandemic ends. We are learning that many students actually prefer the ease of completing more processes online.

Rising to the Challenge

As hard as the past couple of months have been for our colleges, we all understand that the coming months will be, in many ways, even more challenging. The architecture of our community colleges may change, but our foundational commitment to equity and student success will remain undaunted. I have no doubt the Los Rios colleges and community colleges across the United States will rise to the challenge.

Looking to hear from other higher education institutions that are starting their reopening plans? Make sure to join us for our virtual panel on reopening safely on June 25th at 9AM PT/12PM ET.

About the Author

Brian King, Chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District

Brian King is chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District. He has more than 27 years of community college teaching and administrative experience in California and Missouri.