OCC officials: Reopening campus a ‘slow transition’

Orange Coast College students have high hopes of transitioning to in-person classes this fall following a year of online classes, as COVID-19 cases decrease and vaccinations against the virus climb. 

“It goes right back to the Orange County Health Department, and if we can show that we are making the right steps in our community,” said Rich Pagel, OCC’s vice president of Administrative Services. 

OCC must obey guidelines from the OC Health Department, and monitor the OC COVID-19 webpage daily to obtain case numbers that are the determining factor for reopening plans. 

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OCC President Angelica Suarez said that the college was originally planning to incorporate face-to-face classes in the 2020 fall semester, but a significant climb in case numbers within Orange County delayed further progress. 

There are an estimated 1,500 students currently on campus participating in 26 programs ranging from athletics to lab support services. COVID-19 testing is being done at OCC up to three times a week for those on campus, and these students must test negative each week.

“We've been very thoughtful in our approach to athletics and to all of our programs – not rushing,” Suarez said.  

Resuming classes in person will be a slow transition, as OCC follows state guidelines, which fluctuate due to the unpredictable climate of the pandemic. 

Virtual learning has proven to be beneficial for certain students that either have mobility issues or difficulty balancing home and school life. 

“I think we all will be very thoughtful about the (positive) lessons learned during the pandemic and really incorporate them,” Suarez said. “I think it's been a really good approach and we'll continue that in the fall.” 

What classes will be prioritized and who’s determining this?

Determining which courses will be held in person is based on the specific requirements of each class. Classes that call for hands-on activity or can’t easily be converted to virtual learning – such as visual or performing arts – will be at the top of this list for returning in the fall.

“It’s a multi-step process,” said Michelle Grimes-Hillman, vice president of Instruction at OCC. “The deans talk to their faculty who take a look at student needs, then they have to find very intense documentation that is required to show how we are bringing students back.”

Any form of social contact that takes place on campus requires consideration and approval from multiple sectors. That information goes to a reopening committee to be reviewed and then back to deans to make plans.  

There’s an abundance of virtual paperwork that needs to be completed, even for allowing students to pick up materials to participate in class from home.

What will class capacity look like?

Class capacity will rely on state health guidelines on social distancing when reopening takes place.

Suarez said that some academic divisions might need to hold their classes in different buildings in order to follow social distancing guidelines.

“For example, visual performing arts is trying to figure out how to best use existing facilities,” Suarez said. “[They] may take some of their equipment to another facility so that they can have the appropriate social distancing in the class.” 

According to Suarez, OCC normally operates under thorough cleaning standards, and recently upgraded cleaning equipment that will further improve disinfection procedures on campus during the pandemic. 

“We've had our students on campus as of this January, and [athletes] are conditioning with all of the social distancing.” Suarez said. “Many of these practices will continue post pandemic.”

Will vaccinations play a role in reopening?

The district doesn’t currently have the authority to mandate vaccines. “We are definitely encouraging employees and students to get the vaccine, if they wish,” Grimes-Hillman said. 

Pagel said that most people he’s talked to in the education field have gotten at least their first dose of the vaccine, but moving courses back on campus heavily relies on students also getting vaccinated. 

“We’re rolling out across the country, so it’s really all up to the numbers,” Pagel said in reference to the recent surge of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S

OCC recently submitted a request to the state asking to become a vaccination site along with other Coast Community College District schools.  

“There's this whole sort of criteria that has to be followed to meet both state guidelines, but also, we need to make sure that everybody's [students and employees] are safe. That's the bottom line,” Grimes-Hillman said. 

Visit OCC’s Services & Support page for student resources and accommodations to help during the pandemic. 

 

Oceana Christopher contributed to the reporting in this story.

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