Coronavirus-related health and safety restrictions that ground some community college programs to a halt are being eased at 10 of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.
On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office issued new guidance that allows workforce training classes that require in-class or lab practicums to start back up again under relaxed conditions in counties that have entered the second of the plan’s four phases. The guidance also expands the types of classes that can be taught in-person.
The social-distancing rules that went into effect in mid-March shuttered campuses across the state, and most college programs moved online. However, about 40% of the state’s community and technical college students are enrolled in technical programs, including many in the health-care field. Most of those programs require at least some hands-on training — the type that can’t be replicated on a computer screen.
Some of those programs were allowed to open even under Phase 1 rules, said Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Those programs had to be specifically tied to the governor’s list of “essential occupations,” and students had to stand at least 6 feet apart.
But that rule made it impossible for some programs to function.
For example, to become a licensed dental hygienist, a student must complete a certain number of practice hours on patients. Dental cleanings were not considered “essential” and it’s impossible to practice on a patient who’s 6 feet away, so the dental hygiene programs stopped running, Yoshiwara said.
Under the new guidance issued Monday, colleges in Phase 2 counties can offer the hands-on component of any professional technical class on campus, provided students are either kept 6 feet away or use appropriate personal protective equipment, like masks or face shields. That clears the way for a mask- or shield-wearing dental hygienist to work on a patient.
The community colleges located in Phase 2 counties include South Puget Sound Community College, Centralia College, Lower Columbia College, Grays Harbor College, Olympic College, Peninsula College, Big Bend Community College, Walla Walla Community College, Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College.
Even in counties that are still in the first phase, such as King, some in-person workforce training classes were allowed to resume in early May, provided they were tied to “essential occupations” and so long as students and faculty stood 6 feet apart, Yoshiwara said.
Seattle Central College, for example, has been operating a handful of programs in-person, including marine technology at its Seattle Maritime Academy; nursing, respiratory care, surgical technology, medical assisting and medical assisting apprenticeship at its health education center; and culinary, for students in 5th quarter only, at the Capitol Hill campus.
In all, about 300 students are taking in-person classes at Seattle Central, said spokesman Roberto Bonaccorso. Many others are studying online.
Washington’s community colleges saw a 15% drop in spring enrollment, likely because many students decided not to take classes if they couldn’t do the hands-on part of the training, Yoshiwara said. But most experts expect community college enrollment to eventually surge because the unemployed often return to college to skill up for a different career.
The state’s community colleges teach about 360,000 students and serve a slightly older population than four-year universities; the average age is 26. About 45% of enrollees are students of color. Nearly half of students enrolled in community college have a job, and about a quarter have children.
“With high unemployment, it makes credentials even more important to be competitive for the jobs that are out there,” Yoshiwara said. “We have an obligation to help our students to complete credentials as quickly as possible, without violating any health and safety protocols.”