U.S. higher education has truly never experienced a year like 2020. From COVID-19, to racial unrest, to recession-fueled fiscal reductions – it has been a year of remarkable upheaval with our colleges and communities caught in the tragedy of heartache, the sound and the fury. And yet, we have persevered. Later this week, we will close out our fall term after successfully delivering 18 weeks of in-person and online instruction. As the coronavirus pandemic continues its third-wave surge, we are grateful that our students will be home with their families, not scheduled to return until the spring term begins on January 19, 2021.
As we pause to be with our own families, I want to thank you – the heroes we count on to help make our students’ lives freer and better. The state’s financial squeeze prompted us to slash budgets, dig into reserves, substantially halt hiring, borrow contingency funds, and ax or consolidate numerous programs and services. We have faced huge challenges. You were called to sacrifice to ensure sustainability of our organization. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t deserve it, but you didn’t abandon us.
I am extremely proud of our faculty, staff, and administration. You did what we always have done in a crisis: You responded to each other and to your communities. You embraced contingency planning. You endured a smaller paycheck and you faced some dire consequences as a result. Some faced housing challenges. Some had to seek additional employment. Cars were repossessed. And some were unemployed as a result of staffing reductions, closures, and reorganization. It would have been easy to use this crisis as an excuse to leave (and a few did), but the events of the past year have made it very clear that your service – be it teaching, support, or leadership – is far more than a job. Your work fulfills you. Your work enriches your family, your friends, your fellowship, and your community. Education, like baseball, is designed to break your heart. But it also has moments where it helps you forget the difficult times you are going through if you stick with it. The joy outweighs and outlasts the pain. I called you to action and asked you to make changes. You did your best, and I’ve tried my best to have your back.
In a normal year, I would be highlighting achievements of access, success, curriculum, leadership, governance, achieving of our goals, or our transfer rates. This moment calls for us as leaders to do something more that makes a meaningful impact on this generation of students. So much crisis – racial reckoning, health, economic, technology, social and cultural. The uncontrolled pandemic culture facing our students is impacting their ability to continue their educational attainment goals. So many of our students were forced to pause. We must do everything we can to return them to a completion path toward educational attainment.
The organizational changes were essential. We needed to make these changes as a reflection of our current economic conditions, not a past one. Your sacrifices and those changes now give us a chance to see the light. I am energized about the future. The release of a vaccine, the increased likelihood for a return to a vibrant campus life and traditional delivery modalities in fall 2021, fiscal stability capable of better withstanding future financing volatility, and political changes with a new national administration offer great promise for us next year.
As you approach the well-deserved upcoming break, I offer a variety of additional organizational updates:
- New Board Member – I am delighted to announce the addition of Dr. Crystal Jackson to our governing board. Dr. Jackson represents Trustee Area 4 (Lemoore) and I know you join me in welcoming her as our newest Trustee. She was installed at our annual organizational meeting yesterday, along with Martin Maldonado (re-elected), Steve Cantu (unopposed), and Mark McKean (unopposed).
- Remote Operations – To ensure the health and safety of our students and employees, I have extended our primarily remote, virtual operations through April 4, 2021. An updated timeline is attached. This decision follows our late September 2020 decision to offer primarily online instruction through completion of the spring 2021 academic semester.
- Furlough Days – Also at yesterday’s Board meeting, Trustees approved a recommendation to reduce from three to one furlough days from January through June 2021 for our administrative, classified management, and confidential employees. The payroll staff is working to ensure warrants reflect this change beginning with your January paycheck.
- CSEA – I’m delighted to also report an agreement with CSEA for the same timeframe cited above to reduce from three to one furlough days for all classified employees. I appreciate CSEA leadership and their continuing efforts to work collaboratively with administration during the past 18 months.
- Employee Scholars Program and Adjunct Faculty Assignments – With release of this communication, I am announcing:
- A restart of our Employee Scholars Program for new applicants. It is a remarkable and unique professional development program and we are now capable of supporting your continuing professional development. Please refer to Board Policy and Administrative Procedure 7135 regarding program requirements.
- With support of the immediate supervisor, administrators and classified management staff are again eligible to accept adjunct faculty assignments (when available and necessary) that do not interfere with full-time work hours, obligations, or responsibilities.
- Child Development Centers – On January 19, 2021, we will begin reopening child development centers in Coalinga, Lemoore, and Huron at a reduced capacity aligned to state restrictions. Our plan is to open one class per building. That means we’ll open four classrooms in Coalinga and Lemoore, and one in Huron. Daily protocols will be in place and each class will follow state requirements by limiting class size from 12-14 children per class instead of our traditional fill rates that can exceed 24-28 children per class. This reopening announcement does not reflect a commitment beyond the spring semester. We will continue to assess and announce fall 2021 plans at a later date.
- Intercollegiate Athletics – I don’t see any path forward to support athletics in spring 2021. Currently, all but one college in our conference has indicated they are opting out of spring athletics leaving us with no local competition opportunities; logistical challenges of staffing, testing, and tracing; the absence of a vendor in either county that can provide the PCR and antigen tests and return results in time to meet state requirements of testing athletes up to three times each week; no regional or state championships sanctioned this year; and continuously changing conditions and restrictions that pose a significant challenge for athletic teams. Both College Presidents have been heavily involved in working through this issue at their respective college with student athletes, coaches, and staff. Both recommend we opt out of competition in either of the abbreviated spring 1 and spring 2 sport seasons with exceptions: Baseball at WHC Coalinga is designated as a low contact sport and its season would not start until early March. Rodeo is working on an abbreviated season of sport with its national sanctioning organization. Baseball is required to make a determination by February 26, 2021 so we have some time to hope that things improve with containment of the virus in our region.
- Student Enrollment – I also acknowledge and share my gratitude for your efforts in student enrollment. Our communities and disadvantaged students have faced substantial hardship during the pandemic. Our enrollment suffered, dropping 11% from the previous academic year. Your efforts – along with incredible support of our Foundation – were greatly appreciated to connect with students with urgency; provide resources, technology, and financial support; and encouraging students throughout the challenges they faced living through an uncontrolled global pandemic. Please continue to prioritize your work and communication with students through the upcoming spring semester. We need every student we can recruit to reach our enrollment expectations.
- Professional Development Day – Finally, the January 15, 2021 Professional Development Day schedule is attached. College Presidents will follow up with their faculty and staff in early January with Zoom links, Outlook calendar invitations, and additional resources.
As we conclude this remarkable year, I urge you to continue to follow safety protocols. This is an uncontrolled pandemic. Until it is controlled, we await reasonable assurance it is safe to reopen. As a region, we remain in the most restrictive tier. Please continue to adhere to local guidelines and be safe with your family over the holidays.
Wishing you peace and joy,
STUART VAN HORN, ED.D.