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There’s no return to education normalcy in our immediate future, thanks to an abysmally slow vaccine rollout that at the current rate would take as long as two years to vaccinate everyone in Sonoma County. The slog of distance learning is here to stay, but while online-only is positive for some students, it is detrimental to those who need SRJC’s campuses as safe havens and nurturing environments.
This is why The Oak Leaf is calling for a hybrid education model in which class material is presented both online and in-person, not only for the fall semester or until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, but in perpetuity.
Allowing students to learn in the environment that best suits their personality and personal circumstances would ensure SRJC is meeting its mission statement while benefiting students in various ways.
Two tenets of the mission statement are “to provide responsive career and technical training” and “to improve students’ foundational skills” so they are prepared for employment. According to a Stanford University survey, 55% of U.S. workers want their employers to convert to a hybrid model of working when the pandemic ends. This means some employees would work on-site while others work from home. If SRJC were to foster a split digital-and-in-person schedule, it would reflect the employment ecosystem students will enter after graduation. Students would not only learn the subject matter at-hand, but also how to manage this new employment workflow.
Another benefit of the some-at-home-some-on-campus choice is a reduction in the number of people who need to find parking. As anyone whose first class starts after 8 a.m. will tell you, parking at the JC is more bloodsport than going-about-your-day necessity. Students patrol the parking lots in frustration, wasting precious time and precious gas, both of which could be put to better use in the pursuit of their certificate or degree, and the tools needed to attain them. No doubt that cash would funnel into more textbook sales at the bookstore instead of cheaper online vendors.
But perhaps the most meaningful benefit to a permanently hybridized education model is how far it would go in fostering equity for all students.
COVID-19 forced too many students back into childhood homes to spend all day and night with perpetrators of past abuse. These students rely on the JC’s physical campus — the libraries, the cafeterias, the gym — to escape toxic or disruptive family situations. The online-only model spells disaster for these fellow Bear Cubs.
Supporting students is not only about scholarships or free STD testing or providing a “comprehensive range of student development programs and services that support student success and enrich student lives,” as the JC’s mission statement proclaims; supporting our success and enrichment begins with the JC’s providing a place where students can feel safe enough to focus.
For those who struggle with mental health issues, the lack of on-campus, in-person interaction can be debilitating. It is imperative to these students’ well-being to cultivate a routine that requires them to get up, get dressed and get out of the house; but now, with all aspects of daily life taking place within the same four walls, functioning as a healthy adult — never mind learning — is impossible. The online-only model is disastrous for this group, too.
But then some students are thriving under these online-only circumstances. Countless students have reclaimed the hours they’d spend commuting to the Santa Rosa campus from Rohnert Park or to Petaluma from West County. For students who are parents or those who must work to pay the bills (or both!), this reclaimed time translates into fewer hours of childcare, or the same amount of childcare, but more time devoted to studying. These same students love how pre-recorded lectures can be watched whenever the baby naps or at 9 p.m. post-shift. The flexibility of the hybrid scenario — rather than the traditional bankers-hours, in-person class schedule — gives these students the best chance at furthering their education.
Of course, this shift would not be easy for faculty and staff. Creating content for multiple different delivery scenarios is tricky and creates more work. Tracking which student attends digitally vs. in-person vs. both, could be confusing. How do you ensure fairness in exam administration, or foster quality discussion when half the class is beamed-in via Zoom while the other half is sitting in front of you? Both sets of students might be drinking tepid coffee, but that’s the end of their shared classroom experience. And, obviously, there are classes like swimming (which requires a pool) or chemistry (which requires a lab) that just don’t work via Zoom.
This proposal is not without its challenges, but it’s clear one size does not fit all in junior college education. Why can’t SRJC make it possible for all learners to absorb education in the method most effective for them? We pride ourselves in living in a diverse community that strives for equity; shouldn’t the way we offer and consume education reflect our very real inequities and our very noble goal of destroying them?
The COVID-19 pandemic shook the foundations of the American education system, but Californians have dealt with shaky ground before. And just like we did for earthquake preparedness, SRJC must change its codes to shore-up its future. Let’s not go back to the traditional brick-and-mortar, but embrace a flexible, contemporary education model that gives a little when it’s under stress. Let’s use a hybrid learning model to ensure that as many students as possible are left standing after whatever disaster comes next.