Thousands of Clark College students are returning to class this week, two weeks later than normal and, for now, entirely online.
Clark College’s spring quarter began Monday, delayed due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus. College operations are bolstered by federal funding, but services are still substantially scaled back, with closures to laboratory classes and programs like the student food pantry.
“I know (students are) anxious. They want to be at 100 percent,” college spokeswoman Kelly Love said. “We’re trying to remind students we’ll be giving (them) grace.”
For the last five weeks, college administrators and instructors have been redesigning about 2,000 classes to be fully online. Those courses that require in-person labs will extend into the summer, assuming Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order is not extended.
Much like in the K-12 public school system, Clark College officials say they’re weighing how to provide services for their most vulnerable students who lack reliable housing, food, internet and more.
Clark College data suggests that about 39 percent of its students are low-income, and 41 percent work while attending school. It’s unclear, for now, how many students have lost jobs or income due to the coronavirus, but Clark College is making some relief available to those students through emergency grants.
“We’re just being aware of some of the other things our students are going through,” said Suzanne Southerland, president of the college’s faculty union. “Imagine being in a household where everyone is suddenly unemployed.”
Clark College received about $5.2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Statewide, community and technical colleges received about $90.7 million. Half of that money must go toward emergency grants for students to cover expenses like rent, health care and child care. The college opened applications for those grants Monday.
Acknowledging the potential lack of internet access or home computers, Clark College is also making lender laptops available to students who need them. Love also said the college purchased mobile hot spots so students can connect to the internet, but those devices have not been delivered. In the meantime, the college is allowing students to park in one of its lots to access the internet.
“The real question will be in the first week of classes,” Love said. “Are students able to engage? Can they check it out?”
Southerland, with the Association for Higher Education, added that teachers plan on calling their students regularly to check in.
“It may be for a lot of our students that their experience at Clark this quarter may be the only normal thing they have in their lives,” Southerland said. “We hope we’ll be providing something that is going to ground them at a time when nothing else is certain.”
It remains to be seen how college revenue and expenses will be affected by the coronavirus. The other half of its $5.2 million must go toward easing costs associated with the pandemic, such as supplementing lost revenue due to declining enrollment or expenses of moving coursework online. Preliminary estimates suggest that the college has the equivalent of 6,072 full-time students enrolled this spring quarter, down from 6,896 in spring 2019. Since colleges are funded based on enrollment, those declines could hit Clark College’s budget hard. Final enrollment numbers will be released at the end of the month.
Southerland said teachers are working hard to make sure additional declines don’t happen.
“We’re collaborating with the college … to make sure the student experience this spring is superb. We’re not taking the approach of ‘We’re just going to make it through this quarter.’ We’re trying to make it a positive experience academically.”