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At Capitol Hill’s Seattle Central, a struggle to keep up with the outbreak’s changes to education

(Image: Seattle Central)

The last week has been a whirlwind at Seattle Central College. It began with the suspension of in-person classes starting Monday through March 25, the end of winter quarter, a move the school saw as the least harmful option that could be quickly applied. And by the end of the week, Gov. Jay Inslee had extended that restriction for all Washington colleges and universities for another month, through April 24, to blunt the spread of the novel coronavirus, marking a monumental shift to online-only learning for the first few weeks of classes next quarter.

Smack dab in the middle of all this, the Capitol Hill school also had a student receive a presumptive positive test result for the coronavirus that, as of Friday, had 568 confirmed cases and killed 37 people across Washington, according to the state Department of Health.

“Like the UW and other major universities and colleges, we have to balance the potential risks of infection against the disruption of courses, tests, and the services that our students need to succeed in their studies.” SCC spokesperson Roberto Bonaccorso told CHS. “It is a moving target.”

Now 16,000 students are mostly missing from the middle of Capitol Hill.

Just a day before Inslee’s decision, SCC was tentatively planning to return to normal, in-person operations for the spring quarter, which begins April 6, depending on guidance from health officials. Seattle University has made the more drastic move to remote instruction through all of its spring quarter.

Meanwhile, SCC, somewhat unequipped for a sudden move to online learning that other schools both locally and nationally have made in the past week and a half, has scrambled to ensure a smooth transition to studying remotely.

While the University of Washington procured a $200,000 Zoom Pro license to give free video conferencing for all students and staff just days before announcing it was going online for the rest of its spring quarter, SCC’s distance learning team had distributed 151 licenses, as of Friday, according to Bonaccorso. He added that Zoom, which allows students to have more participatory classes than the conventional recorded lecture, provided an additional 100,000 licenses to the state, which were distributed to schools and programs at no cost.

Bonaccorso noted many classes and programs are not suited for a distance model, making online teaching more complicated. For this reason, instructors have been granted discretion on how to grade classes, whether it be for work up to the point of the end of in-person classes or optional exams, for example.

Indeed, one concern for many schools in moving to online learning was how to handle classes that don’t translate as well, such as STEM classes with lab sessions and performance arts courses.

Alongside the licenses, faculty and others are getting intensive training in online teaching and the school has ordered more equipment to make the switch more seamless.

But classes are not the only problem SCC administrators are encountering in this unexpected and extended shift away from usual operations.

“We are also struggling with how to provide services remotely, now that the campus will be locked down and unavailable to students, faculty, and staff for the rest of the quarter,” Bonaccorso said. “Everything from how to pay for registration, submit grades, get counseling, or how to access library resources has to be rethought.”

While in-person classes aren’t happening, many on-campus amenities remain open for students who require those services, which include libraries, computer labs, business offices. By contrast, Seattle Public Libraries has closed all its locations and book drops until at least April 13 and the UW has shuttered almost all of its libraries.

Buildings like the Mitchell Activity Center on Broadway, however, have been restricted to only authorized employees and contractors through at least March 27.

While officials have said healthy young people are at a lower risk of serious complications from the virus, they could spread it to people with underlying health conditions or older individuals, who are more susceptible.

Bonaccorso said that, while the school had plans in place to respond to outbreaks, “plans and reality seldom match” and noted that few institutions had the expertise and infrastructure in place to handle the pandemic developing on a scale not seen since the Spanish Flu more than 100 years ago.

“Thank you for your patience and your flexibility,” SCC President Sheila Edwards Lange said in a message to students Friday. “These are uncertain times, and we are working hard to keep you safe and to minimize the impact of this health emergency on your academic success.”

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