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As Schools Face Outbreaks on Campus, Va's Community Colleges Will be Virtual All Spring

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As residential college campuses become COVID-19 hot spots, Virginia’s community colleges announced today they’ll remain mostly online all the way through the spring semester. 

 

 

This fall, three-quarters of classes at community colleges in Virginia are online. That trend will continue into the spring semester. In a letter to students, the VCCS Chancellor wrote he thinks online classes will continue to be the safest choice for students.

 

“We will continue to follow the science in this matter and take guidance from public health agencies,” writes Chancellor Glenn DuBois. “Public health experts say moving into the traditional cold and flu season will do nothing to slow down the spread of COVID-19. 

The Virginia Community College System’s decision about spring semester comes fairly early, at a time when many four year colleges in the state are still facing questions about this fall. 

James Madison University brought students to campus only to send them back home in early September for a month. The coronavirus outbreak at JMU was one of the largest on a college campus in the country.

The University of Virginia pushed back its in-person start, beginning some in-person classes just last week. Then this week a cluster of cases has prompted the University to conduct more widespread testing. And according to Virginia Tech, almost 800 students there have tested positive for the virus, with 150 quarantined on campus.

But a large chunk of Virginia’s college students don’t attend four-year schools.

 

Nationally, about a third of college students are at community colleges. And according to a national survey by Simpson Scarborough, a higher education research firm, nearly one in 20 high school seniors last spring reported changing their plans for the fall from attending a four-year college to a community college. 

 

Despite that, enrollment at Virginia’s community colleges is down this fall. Excluding high school students who take dual-enrollment classes, which has dropped more significantly as local public high-schools adapt to the new school year, enrollment at community colleges is down 5%.

Spokesman Jeff Kraus says he’s sure some of that is due to COVID-19, but it’s difficult to tell how much. “It is on trend,” Krauss said in an interview Thursday. “We have been losing enrollment for the past couple of years. And part of that...was that the economy was going along so well. We know historically that when the unemployment rate is low we tend to lose enrollment.” 

Since the pandemic began, those economic gains have been reversed. So now, with unemployment rising, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that enrollment at Virginia’s community colleges has held steady in one category: short-term training programs. Those include becoming a certified nurse assistant, or earning a commercial driver’s license. 

“For the most part those are hands-on in person classes,” Krauss said. “In some of the circumstances when we could move things online we have. But, for example, you don’t want to have a truck driver who’s never sat in the cab of a truck.” 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.
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