In his own words: Eloy Oakley on how California’s community colleges are coping with COVID-19

Even as they serve some of California’s most vulnerable students, California community colleges have all gone to distance learning in response to the coronavirus.

In his own words: Eloy Oakley on how California’s community colleges are coping with COVID-19

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of the  California Community Colleges, and in that role is overseeing the upheaval at the nation’s largest system of higher education, with 115 colleges and over 2 million part-time and full-time students. Even as they serve some of California’s most vulnerable students, the colleges have all gone to distance learning in response to the coronavirus. Louis Freedberg and John Fensterwald interviewed Chancellor Oakley for our publishing partner EdSource’s “This Week in California Education” podcast on March 28, and we thought our readers would be interested in his  complete remarks below. Last week, they interviewed Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, about how the K-12 system is dealing with the current crisis. the interview can be found online.

EdSource: The community college system is a decentralized one, and is now decentralized to the ultimate extent. Every college is closed for at least in person instruction. Under these circumstances, what is your message to the community college community? Chancellor Oakley: My message is that now is our time to step forward. Fortunately, all 115 colleges are stepping forward with all the challenges that they face. By and large, 99.9% of the faculty and staff are focused on one thing, and that is to support the students that they serve. So I just want to say thank you to all of our colleges and all of our faculty and staff for doing what they do best. EdSource: The community colleges are still open for business and trying to deliver online instruction.

To what extent are the colleges able to provide distance learning? Chancellor Oakley: We have roughly two different types of situation going on right now. One is that we’ve converted nearly 100 percent of the in-person instruction, the general instruction that leads to an associate degree for transfer  to some sort of remote learning platform. In some cases, that’s totally online. Many faculty have been working on moving courses online for quite some time. We also have the benefit of having the Online Education Initiative and the California Virtual College that we had been working on since Gov. Brown was in office.

So that gave us a little bit of an advantage. For those harder to convert courses, we’ve adapted other remote learning platforms. Our faculty are really adapting in as many forms as possible. The other scenario is we still have to train first responders which requires some in person instruction, everything from nurses to fire, police, and emergency medical technicians. We want to ensure that we don’t interrupt that workforce because obviously that workforce is being strained as we speak. So we need to keep getting those police cadets out, getting those firefighters out. So there is some in-person instruction happening for tasks that need to be done in person. We’re just trying to follow California Department of Public Health guidelines and reduce the number of people who come together at any one time. EdSource: You also have vocational programs, which involve lots of hands on learning. How are those being done online or remotely? Chancellor Oakley: What is happening is this crisis is accelerating the movement we were already making to try to meet the future of work.

As I’ve heard the governor put it the future of work is suddenly now. So we’re having to accelerate a lot of the opportunities that we were looking at to virtualize a lot of the hands-on competency-based instruction. So we’re using a lot of technologies that allow us to create these virtual classrooms. A lot of that was being experimented with, but we’re having to significantly upscale it. Fortunately, we’ve been able to work with many of these companies to provide licenses and opportunities to all of our colleges. So we are in the middle of a huge upscaling experiment right now We’re hoping to keep the students engaged, to keep them learning and to keep them moving forward and get them into the workforce, because we’re going to need them in the workforce in the next couple of months. EdSource: Many community colleges students have lost or will lose their jobs because many of them are working in the service sector. What impact do you think the corona crisis will have on their ability to take these online courses? Chancellor Oakley: Our colleges serve the most vulnerable populations in all of higher education. And this crisis is exacerbating the challenges that they already faced.

Many of those communities and families still hadn’t recovered from the last recession. We are in partnership with many philanthropic groups that are raising money to provide emergency assistance to students. We’re working with our own colleges and their foundations so that we can offer emergency assistance to our students. We’ve also been advocating to the Legislature and Gov. Newsom as well as through Congress and the administration in D.C. to ensure that any relief package targets our lowest income students first. They’re the ones struggling the most and they’re the ones whom we need to ensure get into the workforce as we start to recover. EdSource: Is there any relief in the bail-out bill that Congress has approved? Chancellor Oakley: We’re taking a hard look at that bill. There is some student loan relief, for example. There are additional supports that will go directly to colleges and universities. There’s unemployment insurance support that will definitely help our students. But there’s a lack of a real intentional targeted approach to the lowest income students that we’re hoping to continue to work with Congress to support additional legislation. Keeping the students engaged is our most important job right now. We need to make sure that we communicate to them how important it is for them to be engaged in their education. Because as we saw in the last recession, as we move forward after this crisis, it’s going to be increasingly important to have some sort of college credential to gain a foothold in the economy that’s being created as we speak.

We’re trying to send that message out daily through statewide efforts as well as local efforts. EdSource: Some people do well with online instruction, others do not. Many will need just a quiet place to do the online instruction — which they won’t have. How do you ensure that students succeed? Chancellor Oakley: Those are all issues that we already face daily. One thing that is almost unique to the community colleges, and this is true to many colleges across the nation, that we have some of the most resilient students in America. These individuals have gone through life situations that would make most of us cringe. So I have great faith confidence in our students that they find ways to persist. But we need to make it easier for them. For example, the LA community college district just passed out hundreds of laptops to their students. We’re working with Spectrum and other providers of broadband to make a free subscription available to students. We’re passing out portable Wi-Fi. We’re trying to do everything possible for students to be able to continue their education.

We’re hearing from them as well as to what they need EdSource: Do you have any sense at this point as to what percentage of students have been able to connect and are continuing their courses? Chancellor Oakley: In many cases, colleges either moved up spring break or shut down early while they converted to online instruction. We have some examples of colleges that were already ahead of the game and had already begun to make that transition. We’re seeing some drop off, but haven’t seen a lot. I think the next couple of weeks are going to be a big indicator of how successful we are, because we’re just going to be coming out of week two of the shutdown. One the other advantages that we have is that we recently created this fully online competency-based college called Calbright. It now really giving us the opportunity to create a different type of education delivery through competency-based education.

So we’re doing everything to leverage that initial work that they created to be able to offer one more avenue to all of our other 114 colleges so they can deliver education as quickly and as timely as possible. EdSource: The big question is that everybody is dealing with when do you expect things to get back to normal? You have cautioned that there could be a spike in the virus in August or September? Chancellor Oakley: What I’ve told our colleges is that we should expect this to be the new normal and we should take the opportunity to create a new education environment for our students going forward. And this is an opportunity because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Many of us have gone back to take a look at the documentary series on the 1918 influenza and you can see what experts are talking about. Based on history, we’re dealing with a virus that is likely that this will come back again in the next flu season. So we have to be fully prepared to offer a whole host of learning opportunities. But this also gets us ready for any crisis, any disaster.

And God knows, we’ve had plenty of dispatchers in California recently. I’ve been the chancellor who had to visit more burned down communities than any chancellor before me. So this gives us an opportunity to create a new learning environment for our students that’s more resilient regardless of what happens. EdSource: Do you see any opportunities? While on one level the decentralization has been the community colleges strength, it’s also been a weakness is that is such a decentralized system. Is it forcing the community colleges to collaborate? Chancellor Oakley: I think the beauty of our system has been its decentralized nature. The challenge of the system has been its decentralized nature.

This crisis has really brought the system together. And the, the opportunity that the board of governors has given me and my team to have a lot of flexibility in how we move forward. We collaborate with the colleges on a daily basis. We’re getting a lot of support from local colleges to help bring everybody together. And so I think we are showing the strength of the California community colleges, which is that we serve local communities. We’ve also come together in a way that I haven’t seen, certainly in my time in the California community colleges. We’re really working as one system right now. EdSource: Good luck to you, and stay well. California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley (courtesy California Community Colleges)