This commentary, by California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, first appeared in CalMatters.
Mckenzie Petersen found herself in a bind a couple of weeks ago. With in-person instruction suspended at California community colleges because of COVID-19, the biology major at College of San Mateo lost access to critical, hands-on laboratory experience necessary to transfer to a California State University campus this fall.
Providing laboratory experience is just one of the many challenges community colleges face as they transition to online alternatives. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office stepped in and provided a virtual lab platform supporting a range of science-related disciplines.
Every community college in the state now has access to platform services, including expanded support and technical assistance for faculty. The move is allowing Petersen and thousands of STEM students like her to wrap up her coursework and earn an associate degree this spring.
“While the experience is a little different, the information you gain from a simulated lab is comparable. I’m pretty happy with how this has been resolved,” Petersen said. “I’ll either be going to San Jose State or San Francisco State this fall, and this would not have happened without completing my lab work.”
Thanks to dedicated faculty like Petersen’s biology professor, Christopher Smith, and community college staff throughout the state, the educational journeys of 2.1 million students may have been disrupted, but they don’t have to be interrupted.
To be sure, many challenges remain as we navigate the obstacles thrown at us by this pandemic. Too many students still do not have computers. And in California, the cradle of technological innovation, there is a maddening checkerboard of areas without access to broadband.
On top of that, the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is front and center for many of our students, who have lost jobs and struggled to pay rent even before the crisis struck.
But the resilience of community colleges and students like Petersen is on full display during the pandemic, as is the critical role that our 115 colleges continue to play in the response to the crisis and will play in the economic recovery that will follow.
Community college-allied health programs up and down the state provided more than 100 ventilators to local hospitals as well as hundreds of thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment.
Advanced manufacturing programs fed mothballed overhead transparency sheets into 3-D printers to make protective face shields for front-line health-care workers, turning artifacts from a bygone instructional era into life-saving products.
Our nursing students volunteered to help relieve pressure on an overburdened care delivery system. They are among the 20,000 first responders and health-care professionals trained at community colleges who enter the workforce every year.
We know that state resources will be constrained at least for the short-term, but we cannot allow what happened during the Great Recession of a decade ago to repeat itself. Severe budget cuts to higher education at the time forced community colleges to turn away 500,000 students, allowing California to fall further behind in the production of college-educated workers and hindering economic recovery.
As classes and student services are transitioned online, colleges are in need of a cohesive online infrastructure that supports students, faculty and staff. California needs to continue to invest in community colleges and students like Petersen, whose biology education may one day prove critical in confronting a future crisis faced by our state.