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Tacoma Community College launched a marketing campaign in early December to inform local community members and potential students that more in-person instruction would be offered on campus during this year’s winter quarter. A full third of classes would have a face-to-face component—nearly two years after most U.S. colleges first shifted to remote education in response to the pandemic.

Then the highly infectious Omicron variant began to spread across the country, and leaders of the Washington State institution swiftly decided to move most of the classes online.

Marissa Schlesinger, provost and vice president of academic affairs at the college, said it quickly became clear that the move was necessary. When she looked at the college’s COVID-19 dashboard a week into the winter quarter, eight people on campus had tested positive within the last two weeks, not even counting cases that were discovered off campus during the break.

Schlesinger described the turn of events as “a hiccup” in the marketing campaign to recruit students after the college experienced enrollment losses during the pandemic. But that optimistic view lies in contrast to challenging enrollment declines amid the pandemic. Student head count fell by 1,037 in fall 2020, as enrollment dropped to 6,424 students from 7,461 in fall 2019.

Classes are scheduled to return to in-person teaching on Jan. 18.

“We’ll just keep rolling with the punches,” Schlesinger said. “We are committed to our students above all.”

The goal is to keep current students infection-free and simultaneously enroll and retain “as many students as we can,” she said.

Community college leaders across the country are doing the same types of mental calculus as they rapidly adjust their plans for the winter or spring terms while also trying to gauge the risks of keeping campuses open—and the costs of closing them. Many colleges are shifting some or all of their courses online during the first weeks of the semester, pushing back their start dates or imposing stricter safety protocols.

“Everybody is scrambling, trying to have a strategic plan for how to respond when students return in case there’s surges of the illness,” said Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force. She said the absence of dorms at most community colleges means one fewer space where students can congregate and get infected with the coronavirus. But their commutes between campuses and their homes and workplaces can also spread the virus.

Community colleges also have the added challenge of responding to Omicron while trying to stem the exodus of students. Enrollment at community colleges has fallen sharply since the pandemic began, by 14.8 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2021, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data.

“Enrollment is always a concern,” said Betsy Libby, president of Central Maine Community College. “But no one was going to be successful or retained if campus wasn’t safe.”

Campus leaders say they are trying to balance instituting safety protocols with retaining students who are disproportionately from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college students, students of color and working adults with children and other family responsibilities. Many of these students have had their lives disrupted by high infection rates in their communities, job losses, shifts to online education and changing COVID-19 protocols at K-12 schools.

Students at community colleges may also be more likely to face “job insecurity and issues with family members at home becoming sick or having a major effect from COVID,” Taylor said.

Lisa Avery, president of Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon, said those students “have been the ones who most need access to college right now and are not, for whatever reason, able to take advantage of it.” She said declining enrollment among men and low-income students and other vulnerable populations has become an urgent concern for many community college administrators.

“It’s sort of a double whammy, because the enrollment is lowest among those who we believe we really, really need to make sure are getting an education right now to be active participants in our economy,” she said.

Libby said students with children in particular have had their schedules thrown off by the Omicron variant and may benefit from online courses.

“When your child’s school goes remote, you can’t leave your 4-year-old at home to come to your Monday morning class,” she said.

Community colleges have responded to the emergence of the Omicron variant and the challenges it poses to student retention in various ways. Schlesinger said two weeks of online classes was the right fit for her institution: a month seemed “untenable” and “disruptive” to students already tired of online learning, and a week was too short for students to get tested after the holidays.

Other colleges have also opted to at least partly shift courses online for the beginning of the current winter or spring terms that start later in January or early February. For example, the Los Rios Community College District, in California, moved most classes online until Jan. 31 in “response to skyrocketing case numbers” in the region, according to the district’s website.

The Austin Community College District also plans to shift some courses online, from Jan. 18 through Jan. 30, the first two weeks of the semester.

“While the Omicron variant is less severe, it is spreading quickly and impacting friends and family,” Richard M. Rhodes, chancellor of the Austin district, said in an announcement. “This is not how we wanted to start 2022, but we will get through this together. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our Riverbat community is strong, resilient, and capable of overcoming any challenge that comes our way.”

Avery, who also serves on the advisory committee for the American College Health Association’s Campus COVID-19 Vaccination and Mitigation Initiative, said her institution is sticking with its original plan for the winter quarter: the college is offering about 26 percent of courses in person and plans to shift individual courses online if three or more students in a class test positive for COVID-19. Hospitals located in the two counties served by the campus, located about an hour outside of Portland, Ore., have only five available ICU beds, so administrators must take a “conservative” approach, she said. But already a “handful” of classes had to go remote less than two weeks into the term, which she fears may cause more students to stop out.

The Los Angeles Community College District is also following its original plan. It started its winter session Jan. 4 with more than 88 percent of courses offered remotely. The district is also requiring surgical-grade or 95-series masks indoors, available for free on campuses, and providing free weekly COVID-19 testing.

“Our Winter Session will continue with the existing schedule as planned for each college, which includes a variety of in-person, hybrid and remote learning classes, plus a mix of in-person and remote student services and business operations,” Francisco C. Rodriguez, chancellor of the district, said in an email message to district employees. “We will remain flexible, nimble and responsive, and continue to closely monitor the situation.”

The Maine Community College System also started mandating booster shots last month for students who are eligible.

Community colleges are investing in new recruitment and retention efforts to stave off possible enrollment declines related to Omicron. Linn-Benton, for example, is doing targeted marketing to students 25 and older on social media. The number of degree-seeking students at the college fell 15.6 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and by another 14 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021.

“We really believe that the students who are 25 and up, the adult learner population, are both hard to reach and important to enroll,” Avery said. “So we’ve continued to really try to assertively market to that group.”

She noted that as community college leaders juggle competing priorities amid the Omicron variant, they must remember the critical role of their institutions and the importance of enrolling and retaining students.

“We need to be as persistent as we hope our students will be,” she said. “Our communities need us more than ever, and our safety net is very frayed because of the long-standing challenges brought on by the pandemic. But I would say, if not community colleges, then who? In other words, we are the first point of entry for many, many Americans in their economic mobility, and we need to make sure we not only keep our doors open but make sure we open more doors than we had open pre-pandemic.”

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