It’s quiet on the campus of Springfield Technical Community College these days.
Just how much longer the campus stays closed and students continue to learn online is the question hanging over this and other colleges around Western Massachusetts.
“It’s early May. September is a long way off,” said John B. Cook, president of STCC, which has not decided its plan for the fall semester yet.
Holyoke Community College and Greenfield Community College have already decided to keep virtually all their classes online in the fall, keeping their combined student bodies of more than 10,000 off campus.
Other schools continue to weigh their options. The University of Massachusetts Amherst is still deciding if its students will come back on campus in the fall, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said Tuesday in an online video.
STCC’s Cook said his decision will come soon and might be a hybrid of in-person labs and practical courses for technical and health care degrees and lectures moved to the virtual realm.
“I know our students in particular are going to want to have clarity sometime this summer about what they are registering for,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “We are not going to wait till the last minute to make decisions. We know that there are broader considerations out there. Is there testing? Is there contact tracing in place? (Is personal protective equipment) widely available?”
He said directives from Gov. Charlie Baker are key. The governor recently ordered K-12 schools closed through the end of the academic year, and orders closing nonessential businesses and banning gatherings of more than 10 people are in effect until at least May 18.
If new rules allow gatherings of 20 or more, Cook said, STCC might be able to have in-person classes if students are spaced apart and other precautions are taken.
STCC is the only technical community college in the state, he said. That means its roughly 8,800 students take more labs and practical courses than students at other community colleges. That hands-on emphasis makes the decision to shift online more difficult.
Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield is also considering what fall 2020 will look like. It must consider that its rural student body might have less access to high-speed internet.
“We are planning to go either way,” Christina Wynn, dean of enrollment management, said in phone interview. “We are gearing up to make sure we can offer many of our courses in the remote online environment.”
Holyoke Community College decided this week to move virtually all its courses online for fall 2020.
“Unlike residential campuses, some of whom are indicating a commitment to reopen in the fall, we have very limited control over where our students sleep, eat, work, and congregate,” Rachel Rubinstein, HCC vice president for academic and student affairs, wrote in a memo to faculty Tuesday.
“Our students are firmly embedded in local community networks, more likely to be older, have children, and be essential workers,” Rubinstein wrote. “They are more likely to belong to low-income and communities of color, that nation-wide have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This makes them, and all of us, all the more vulnerable. The responsibility to keep everyone as safe as possible weighs heavily.”
HCC is the state’s oldest community college, serving more than 11,500 students annually in credit and noncredit programs and courses.
A few days earlier, Greenfield Community College announced that it would offer virtually all courses online in the fall as well.
Anna Berry, chief student affairs officer at the 1,800-student campus in Franklin County, said the decision was swayed by the prediction that there will be a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall.
No one at GCC wanted to have another semester interrupted in the middle. “Where we start off and then have to pull the rug out from our students with another shift to a remote learning environment,” she said. “We want them to be able to make plans.”
Still, the continued closing may be a hardship for some students.
“Not all of our hilltown students have good access to internet,” Berry said in a phone interview. “Many of them do not have good cellphone service.”
Announcing now gives students time to prepare for fall and work with the college to solve connectivity issues. “All those plans are still very much in the formulation phase,” Berry said.
The college is building up support services and ways to build community among students online.
“We’ve had a lot of experience with online teaching prior to this whole thing,” Berry said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. I’m not going to kid anybody and say it’s the same experience and you can build community in the same ways.”
She said the cost per class is the same online or in person. But online classes are priced the same for in-state and out-of-state residents, so some students will save money.
Berkshire Community College’s Wynn said there are costs associated with online courses. There are technology needs, instructors to pay. She said the state sets tuition.
And then there is the question of how many students will register in the fall.
Community college enrollment tends to go up in times of economic recession. Jobs are tight and people realize they need more and skills and credentials to compete, Cook said.
Berry said many students who otherwise would go to a four-year residential campus won’t this fall for fear of that second coronavirus wave. Those students might instead start at a community college.
On the other hand, coronavirus and its economic toll might make community college unaffordable. Disruptions at child care centers and schools might mean parents can’t take time out for even an online course.
“I’m imagining we are going to do OK,” Berry said.
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