Up to 75% of community college classes in Bay Area will remain online in the fall

The nation’s largest college system, which educates California’s 2 million community college students, will mostly remain in remote learning this fall.

KTVU surveyed several of the Bay Area’s community college districts and found that up to 75% of the classes will remain online in the fall semester at a time when enrollment has dropped by double digits and K-12 public schools are being forced back into the classroom. The majority of community college classes won't resume in person, for the most part, until January 2022. 

In addition, community colleges are not mandating that students and staff be vaccinated, while the University of California is. 

The issue of whether to go back in person raises serious questions about safety, as well as equity, and what’s best for students and staff: Are they more at a disadvantage by going back to campus or staying at home?

At public forums and in interviews, many people expressed that remote learning worked better for their lives, especially if they lived far far away from campus or had a job they needed to juggle in addition to taking classes. 

But for others, like John Tam, a student at City College in San Francisco, the answer is clear: Remote learning is detrimental.

He told a public forum this month that he had lived in a tiny Tenderloin apartment with seven people and going to class online in that cramped space was far from ideal for learning.

Angela, a student at City College, told a public forum that she has a lot of anxiety and doesn’t perform well online. She said her grades dropped in two classes and she attributed that to not being able to ask teachers questions in real-time in class. 

"The biotech class was really, really challenging," she said, adding that watching a recording of the lecture was very difficult.

Another woman said she comes to campus for food and other social services and needs school to open in person for these non-academic reasons. 

And Eric, who is both a student and an English teacher at City College, said that he had some students who had to go to friends’ houses during the pandemic because their homes were not suitable for distance learning. 

He also said he had the highest withdrawal rate the past semester.

"So, a lot of the voices of folks who really want to go back face to face aren't here anymore," he said. "They’re gone. We’ve lost them." 

Lawrence Hargraves II, a senior at Jesse Bethel High School, attends his first day of school in front of his laptop on his bed. He had been hoping to leave the house and attend college in person. Aug. 17, 2020

Mounting public pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers to get kids back in the classroom prompted the mandatory reopening of K-12 schools in the fall. 

But the higher education system, especially the community colleges, received scant public attention, and therefore, a lack of similar mandates. 

The community college system is a decentralized one, and each of the 116 colleges is run by its own elected board of trustees. That means that each college, or the district that it is part of, will decide on its own what kind of instruction it will offer in the fall. 

The in-person-remote-learning debate is rearing its head just as a recent study by UC Santa Cruz found that enrollment at California's community colleges dropped 17% last year compared to the fall prior. The downturn was most stark among male students, older students, who are often parents, and Black, Latino and Native American students.

While some attribute that to distance learning, Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications at the California Community Colleges, said there are other reasons, too. 

Namely, he said, many students lost jobs during the pandemic and couldn’t afford to take classes, or they had children whom they had to assist with their own distance learning at home, as well. 

Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) told KTVU that there is "no reason for students to be doing instruction on computers."

He added that the state "must attract students back, and the only way to do that is to offer in-person classes."

While Ting said that virtual learning works well for some working students and students with young children, access to in-person learning in the community college classrooms should be equal to what is being offered at the University of California and Cal State University campuses.  Ting said there are currently budget discussions underway to encourage community colleges to open up more quickly.

To find out whether classes would be in-person or not in the fall, KTVU surveyed four community college districts in the Bay Area.

Here are the findings: 

  • Only 25% of the classes at the three schools in the Contra Costa Community College District will be in person in the fall, meaning that 75% will be online in some fashion, according to spokesman Larry Womack.
  • The Peralta Colleges -- Berkeley City College, College of Alameda, Laney  College, and Merritt College -- will only offer ⅓ of its fall semester in person, or ⅔ online or remote, according to spokesman Mark Johnson.
  • At  City College in San Francisco, 30% of the fall classes will be in-person and 70% will be online or in remote learning, according to spokeswoman Rosalinda Zepeda.
  • Between 25% to 30% of classes in the San Mateo Community College District will be online in the fall.
  • The College of Marin said 51% of its classes would be online in the fall, spokeswoman Nicole Cruz said.

The main reasons for not returning to campus? 

According to interviews with community college district officials:

The campuses had already decided to be online before Newsom decided to reopen the state and they didn’t want to play bait-and-switch with students’ scheduling. And these new changes and working conditions had not been hammered out with the various teachers and classified unions.

In addition, some campuses have particular facility issues that are hampering the in-person return to school.

For instance, Batmale Hall at City College in San Francisco has no windows and many instructors say they don’t feel safe teaching there with what they described as inadequate ventilation. 

At a virtual town hall this month discussing reopening the campus, cooking instructor Jennifer Rudd told trustees that she has real safety concerns teaching in an area that has no HVAC filter systems. She said she was concerned about contracting COVID, despite being vaccinated, and picking up "long hauler" symptoms for an indefinite period of time. 

Her fears were echoed by several colleagues, who also complained about lecture halls and other teaching rooms that they didn't feel were properly ventilated. 

Some students said they didn't mind learning over a computer from their bedrooms; in fact, they argued they prefer the online model, especially if they're working or live far away. 

At Foothill College in Los Altos, more than 50% of the students surveyed said they wanted only online classes in the fall. 

Michele Snyder, 43, who attends Laney College in Oakland, said it’s actually more helpful for her to attend classes on Zoom and YouTube. She has since moved to Richmond and works full-time, so the flexibility of online classes works for her. 

Many students and teachers also expressed a desire for a combination of all three types of education: In-person, hybrid and online, as long as the distance learning is robust and interactive. 

And then there is Lawrence Hargraves II, who just graduated from Jesse Bethel High School in Vallejo.

He is trying to take a measured approach to his new fate of taking mostly online classes, but for him, it is not what he had hoped for. 

The incoming freshman was accepted to several four-year universities but decided to attend Diablo Valley Community College for financially savvy reasons. 

On the one hand, the teen said having online classes is helpful, at least this summer. He is working in Berkeley and is happy to be able to take courses early in the morning and late in the evening before and after his job. He also feels it's safe to continue studying from home in terms of contracting the virus. 

But on the other hand, he wants to venture outside the house and spread his wings.  

"I’ve been in quarantine for a year," he said. "And I love my family, but I want the actual college experience." 

KTVU's Rob Roth contributed to this report.

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@fox.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez