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RCC plans some in-person classes for tech programs

Rogue Community College plans to hold some in-person classes for its technical programs this fall after a spring and summer spent entirely online.

“We have students who just can’t move forward in their programs unless they get some of these face-to-face labs,” said RCC President Cathy Kemper-Pelle.

RCC will continue to offer most courses remotely, however, and plans to keep campuses open on a limited basis, the school said last week in a press release.

All RCC campus areas used by students and faculty will be cleaned and sanitized daily, according to the release. Face coverings will be required indoors, as well as outdoors if people can’t stay 6 feet apart.

If COVID-19 conditions worsen, RCC will return to complete online instruction, the college said.

The school’s return-to-campus plan has been submitted to the Oregon Health Authority for review, Kemper-Pelle said, and — if given the green-light — will be submitted to the RCC Board of Education for approval, in accordance with Gov. Kate Brown’s June 12 executive order on state college and university operations.

Each public university and community college must submit a plan for complying with OHA’s standards for providing in-person instruction by Sept. 1.

Kemper-Pelle acknowledged many students remain anxious about returning to some degree of in-person instruction by fall, but she said those enrolled in many of the school’s career and technical programs such as manufacturing and welding need hands-on instruction.

RCC has significantly reduced the number of students allowed in labs — decreased between a half and a third of their original capacity — so instructors can teach students safely, Kemper-Pelle said.

“A lab that might normally have 20 students may only have six to eight students in it,” she said. This means instructors would working overtime to teach multiple sections of the same course,

Todd Geisbrecht, chair of the RCC welding department, said in-person labs are an essential component of technical education, but would also complement online instruction.

For Geisbrecht, welding students need to put on their helmets and generate actual sparks to continue developing their skills.

“I’m not sure the welding program can survive three more months online,” he said.

Welding labs at the Riverside and Table Rock campuses have a capacity for 28 students, said Geisbrecht, but will be limited to 14 in the fall.

However, the question of whether instructors would have to teach multiple sections depends on fall enrollment numbers, he said.

“I think we’ll be in good shape for fall,” said Kemper-Pelle, pointing to the in-person labs planned for the term, as well as the opening of the new Health Professions Center at the Table Rock campus.

The $21.25 million facility was built this year for students taking nursing, dental assistant and pharmacy technician courses, as well as other health care programs.

Enrollment numbers for the upcoming term remain up in the air, but Kemper-Pelle said RCC would be looking to see whether the college sees an influx of new students — those deciding against attending a four-year university during the pandemic.

RCC experienced a 14% enrollment dip last spring, according to Kemper-Pelle, though enrollment rebounded slightly in the typically lighter summer term she said, dipping by 6.9%,

The drop in spring term tuition and the increased expenses incurred for training faculty to use new online tools cost RCC a little over a million dollars, the president said. “It was a big hit.”

RCC received $1.2 million from the Department of Education of emergency CARES act funding, half of which was distributed to students as financial aid grants.

The college was able to submit reimbursement requests to use the remaining funding to pay for some of the added costs of training faculty and buying new software, she said, but the funding did not cover lost tuition.

Kemper-Pelle said she is concerned decreasing state revenues will result in cuts to state funding for higher education, particularly for community colleges, which she said have historically served as economic engines during financial crises, retraining people for new career pathways.

“If we suffer a large cut in state support, it’s going to hamper our ability to retrain people.”

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe RCC chemistry lab is cleaned Wednesday morning in the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center in Medford.