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Back to school, remotely, on Capitol Hill — Seattle Central College ready to start new year amid COVID-19 challenges

By Ben Adlin

Seattle Central College will remain on lockdown as the fall quarter kicks off on Tuesday, with limited access to the school’s Capitol Hill campus and nearly all coursework conducted remotely. Stations will be set up outside building entrances to screen visitors for COVID symptoms, and an updated ventilation system is designed to swap out indoor air every three minutes.

With no end in sight to the pandemic, college administrators expect the precautions to stretch at least into early next year. The school’s operations are limited by the Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased reopening plan.

“Until we get there in terms of public health, the number of cases, testing, everything, we’re not going to be able to bring back more people onto campus,” said SCC President Sheila Edwards Lange. “Initially we thought that we’d be in Phase 3 right now, to be honest, but we’re still in Phase 2.”

The concerns about the virus go beyond health. Last week a small group of demonstrators gathered in a parking garage on campus to demand that Seattle Colleges, which includes Seattle Central, establish a worker-led decision-making process, make cuts to the administrative budget to pay for programs and staff, provide free tuition for students and enact progressive taxes to fully fund colleges as the pandemic seems likely to bring budget cuts to the system.

Already the back-to-school season has brought fears—and growing evidence—of new coronavirus outbreaks. One recent study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, estimated that an extra 3,200 cases a day may have been caused in recent weeks by face-to-face instruction at U.S. colleges and universities.

To combat that spread, only a handful of Seattle Central’s course offerings this quarter will include in-person instruction. Most of those programs, such as nursing, carpentry and culinary arts, require in-class evaluation for accreditation or practical reasons.

And students in those programs, administrators said, will still see a number of pandemic-related changes, including an increased emphasis on remote learning. Nursing students, for example, will rely more on computer simulations instead of hands-on practice.

Most other programs, meanwhile, will be entirely remote, relying on video presentations, the online learning management tool Canvas and even, on occasion, good old-fashioned snail mail.


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“For lab classes, we’re literally sending out lab experiments in a kit,” said Lincoln Ferris, Seattle Central’s interim vice president of administrative services. “That’s sort of a unique kind of thing.”

The other measures meant to limit the spread of COVID include limited hours for student services, such as registration and financial aid, and a requirement that everyone on campus wear masks. Informational signage at entryways has been translated into 12 languages.

“I joke sometimes with some of our employees,” Ferris said. “I think they’re safer coming to work than they are going to buy groceries.”

The confidence to joke, however, has been months in the making. Since word of a possible coronavirus outbreak at Lake Washington Technical College made its word to school administrators in February, it’s been “organized chaos” keeping up with changing health guidelines and making sense of how to respond, Edwards Lange said.

Officials were already mulling a move to close the campus, but Gov. Inslee’s stay-at-home order in March sealed the deal and Seattle Central went remote.

“This transition to asking our faculty to teach online for spring quarter was this monumental move,” Ferris recalled. “We’re past it now, but at the time it was huge: trying to figure out what do we do for resources, how much time can we expect them to do it, how fast can we do it?”

After months of discussions and sometimes daily meetings with other college administrators across the state, Seattle Central officials hammered out a plan, which over time evolved into the current approach as more became clear on how the virus is transmitted from person to person.

Administrators wanted to give instructors as much control over their classes as possible, they said, while still complying with state- and county-level guidance. All in-person instruction needs approval from both the state Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industries.

“Every campus is different,” said Edwards Lange. “It was really helpful, at least for me as president, to have the statewide guidelines and framework to then come back and have our faculty put together their own individualized plan for how they were going to comply with that framework.”

So far, administrators are pleased with the result. While two students tested positive for COVID shortly after the pandemic began, there hasn’t been a confirmed case at the college in months.

“We’ve really had no one in five months be diagnosed and spread it at campus,” Ferris said. “Count my lucky stars and knock on wood, but I think that’s a testament to the fact that at least in the community college system, we’ve worked pretty quickly and successfully to minimize the spread amongst our students and staff.”

The college’s coronavirus response, however, has sometimes created obstacles for the college’s most vulnerable students.

“I tell you, one of the biggest challenges was not just the technology but internet access,” Edwards Lange said, “because once the libraries closed, what we realized was how many of our students were actually using the library as their internet connection.”

Even after months of work, administrators said they’re aware of outstanding hurdles involving access to technology. While the college can’t afford to meet all those needs, Ferris said, “We have scrambled and we continue to raise funds and spend money on everything from providing wi-fi hotspots … to Chromebooks.”

“Some of our students still will need some in-person assistance and help,” he added. “So, for instance, this week we have some limited hours for in-person student services. We’ll open up for limited hours our student computer lab, where we can do social distancing. I think we are really cognizant of really not making it any harder than it already is for the people who we, as a mission, really want to serve.”

Edwards Lange noted that plexiglass barriers have been installed in the computer lab and student services areas, projects that at one point led to a “run on plexiglass.” The school is also directing students toward drive-in wi-fi areas in King County. (The city of Seattle also has a number of public wi-fi areas.)

Officials are projecting the coronavirus will mean lower enrollment at Seattle Central, although they won’t know for sure until next month. “We won’t know the full enrollment picture until the 10th day of the quarter,” said Roberto Bonaccorso, the school’s communications director. “We are estimating numbers at or a little below last year’s fall enrollment.”

Likely most impacted in terms of enrollment were international students, school officials said, who in some cases traveled home during the pandemic only to find themselves unable to get back into the U.S.

The absence of those students could be a financial hit for the school given that international students generally pay higher tuition, administrators said, but the lower enrollment also has a silver lining by allowing the school’s residence hall—an apartment building across the street occupied mostly by international students—to increase social distancing by turning what were triple-occupancy rooms into doubles or singles. All the apartments have their own kitchens and bathrooms.

That building also might be getting a little more crowded. Monday, the school announced that the housing in the Broadway Building typically used for the international students is now being made available to “all students at Seattle Central College or any other local higher education institution” at a 25% discount. A “1-person unit” will run you $10,395 counting restoration and occupancy fees and a damage deposit — around $1,155 a month.

This being 2020, COVID isn’t the only thing college officials have had to balance in recent months. Since late May, protests against police violence and racism have centered on the edge of Seattle Central’s campus..

“Not to whine, but we’ve had some pretty significant graffiti and property damage,” Ferris said. “At the same time, we support open protests, we support Black Lives Matter, and many of our own faculty and students and staff were part of those initial demonstrations. It’s been a really interesting time from an administrator’s standpoint.”

As for worries about the college system budget and financial outlook at Seattle Central, Seattle Central officials directed a request for comment to Jennifer Dixon, vice chancellor for human resources for Seattle Colleges, who did not immediately respond.


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Caracas on the Sound
Caracas on the Sound
5 months ago

” establish a worker-led decision-making process”

AKA no idea how budgeting works. Maybe they can start printing money?