GHC dealing with, adapting to instruction in the age of a pandemic

Facing a “damaging mix” of state-funding cuts, drops in enrollment and thus tuition revenue, and increased health and safety concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Grays Harbor College, like many other colleges and universities across the state, is reshaping how it educates its students for the rapidly-approaching school year.

Though GHC hit 97 percent of its predicted full-time equivalent enrollment for the summer term, adjusted for COVID-19, that still fell short of the state-funded allocation target by 33 percent (based on previous years numbers).

FTE are enrollments that represent a full-time equivalency calculation. For example, if a college has 10,000 (student) FTE, it may have 8,000 full time students (which count as 1.0 FTE) and 4,000 half-time students (0.5 FTE). The college then has certain FTE targets it needs to hit for budgetary purposes (state-funded allocation targets).

So while the Grays Harbor College was near the mark in predicting its enrollment of its summer FTE , that number still falls far short of the amount needed to hit the state’s target for funding.

“We are definitely seeing a drop (in enrollment numbers),” new GHC Vice President of Instruction, Nicole Lacroix, said. “So what we predicted, based on drops to enrollment, we were pretty accurate, but it’s considerably lower than where we were (before COVID).”

Fall enrollment predictions are currently at approximately 50 percent FTEs, which is 40 percent of state-funded allocation targets with one month left before instruction begins for the 2020-21 school year. But Lacroix acknowledged that the college expects to see a jump in those numbers as the first day of school draws closer.

“It’s pretty common for all community colleges to see a higher enrollment push in that last month,” said Lacroix, who moved to the area in July after working as the Dean of Instruction for the past four years at Red Rocks Community College in Denver, Colorado. “So we are definitely looking to see that in the coming month. But I also think that students are waiting for universities and GHC to make a call as to what would happen.”

As Lacroix explains it, students that may have considered going to a four-year university out of high school may be feeling a bit of sticker shock when considering educational options during a pandemic.

“If everything is going to be online, why not take classes at GHC where students get smaller class sizes and pay lower tuition rather than paying a higher tuition? You are going to be on your couch doing your homework either way,” Lacroix inquired. “So I think that students are kind of waiting, but now that universities have announced they are moving to (online) delivery and GHC has a plan in place, I think we are going to see a big enrollment push from that.”

Lacroix added that local high schools moving to online instruction for the fall provides an opportunity for GHC’s “Running Start” program to provide a bump in enrollment numbers for similar reasons.

The Washington Office of Financial Management estimates the state faces an $8.8 billion state operating budget shortfall through 2023 due to economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But to this point, the talk of potential budget cuts and loss of revenue hasn’t affected the amount of educational options GHC is offering, as a full schedule of classes is slated for the fall quarter.

“We have a 100 percent full schedule, so all the courses we would traditionally offer during a normal semester we have on our (fall) schedule,” Lacroix said. “Just like any year, we adjust the schedule based on predicted enrollment, which has dropped due to COVID. So we may have adjusted the number of sections, but as wait lists increased, we are prepared to offer as many sections as necessary.”

According to Lacroix, the school is offering its full range of classes for its four-year Bachelor programs, Associates of Arts and Sciences programs, as well as adult education, General Education Diploma, and English as a Second Language courses.

The biggest difference from previous years is that the majority of courses and instruction will be done online after the school’s interim President, Ed Brewster, announced in July that GHC will be going to a “mostly remote” model for the fall quarter.

“So all our classes, other than some of them that require hands-on instruction, will be offered completely remotely for the fall,” Lacroix said, adding that there is a possibility the same will hold true for winter and spring classes, but no decision has been made at this time. “We’re offering two kinds of online instruction. One is the more traditional asynchronous online instruction and then the other is called remote, where the class is meeting via Zoom instead of scheduled class time. So it provided an opportunity to for students that need a little more face-to-face time.”

One of the issues with online-only “remote learning” is that fields of study that require a more hands-on approach, cannot be taught through a computer screen alone.

“So the areas that require hands-on will be in-person,” Lacroix said. “But we’re going to try a combination of remote lectures, as much as possible, but the hands-on will be on campus.”

This applies to mostly construction and industry technology courses, the nursing program and science laboratory work.

With the possibility that in-person instruction could be suspended until further notice if Governor Jay Inslee decrees as much, GHC is trying to remain as adaptable as possible. But as Lacroix puts it, the administration, faculty and students gained some valuable experience after last spring’s shutdown.

“That’s where strategic planning comes in,” Lacroix said. “Our faculty has so much experience teaching online. So right now we are planning on mostly remote for the entire quarter, so that won’t be an issue for us. … In the spring, everyone had to turn around and offer classes online in two weeks. So we already have the preparation to move online and use external resources for faculty to be creative, recognize what labs can be done at home, and really utilize technology. We’ll be prepared to shift to completely online if (another shutdown) happens.”

The results from last spring’s shutdown were a silver lining to what was a dark cloud, as Lacroix said the faculty and students pivoted well and performed.

“Originally, we were working under the impression that when all of this happened it threw everybody for a loop,” she said. “The spring quarter was pretty hectic for both faculty and students and the thought was we can’t wait to get back to in-person (instruction) when this is over. But everybody did really well during the spring quarter. We saw strong completion rates and success rates in courses so the attitude is beginning to shift a little bit as the students are becoming very comfortable with online instruction.

“We’re seeing a high enrollment in our remote and online environment. So Students are getting more comfortable with the idea of remote delivery.”

Regardless of the challenges it faces, Lacroix said Grays Harbor College “will do whatever we need to do to continue higher education and serving our students in the community.”