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Remote Learning Remains Popular at Modesto Junior College

Having lost a fifth of its enrollment from fall 2019 to 2020, MJC is preparing for a fall semester with fewer course offerings, sparsely populated classes and nearly half its students now favoring remote instruction.

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(TNS) — Modesto Junior College is working to bring a diverse array of students back to its campuses this fall after 15 months of wrestling with the COVID pandemic.

MJC, like other community colleges in California, suffered quite a toll from the public health crisis, including a 20-percent enrollment drop from 18,066 in fall 2019 to 14,489 in fall 2020.

Aside from the effects of remote learning on students, college and career paths were interrupted, and sports and performing arts programs were affected.

Darin Gharat, a trustee for the Yosemite Community College District, said at a board meeting Wednesday the district's enrollment decline is 14 percent based on the most current numbers.

The plan for the fall semester thus far includes 270 offerings of in-person classes on campus, with priority given to lab classes and career technical education. A typical semester at MJC has more than 1,000 course sections. Many students will continue with distance learning in the fall.

The MJC athletics department plans a full schedule of sports in the fall, and music and theater programs will resume activities, the college said. Registration for new students started June 12.

Total enrollment is down about 12 percent at the 116 community colleges in California, according to a March report to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

Some colleges lost from a third to half of their full-time and part-time students. The more severe declines affected students of color, students older than 50 and first-time students, the report said.

"These enrollment declines represent a significant challenge for the system overall and a potential future threat to individual colleges' viability, barring significant local efforts to remain student-centered," the report warned.

MJC will confront the challenges with a new college president at the helm. The former interim president, Santanu Bandyopadhyay, explored the job market for college executives before the YCCD board approved a two-year contract extension for him Wednesday.

Online classes favored by some students

Bandyopadhyay said at Wednesday's board meeting that survey responses from about 1,800 students showed large numbers wanting a return to in-person classes, but almost an equal number favored online classes.

Even though they are tech-savvy, younger students missed the in-person classes and social life on campus, the survey revealed.

YCCD Chancellor Henry Yong said recently that science labs this fall will likely have spacing for a dozen students rather than 24, as a coronavirus precaution.

Asking faculty members to teach more lab classes with a smaller number of students would be costly.

"For my classes, students generally work in teams of four to complete lab activities," Noah Hughes, a professor of earth sciences, said by email. "If we are able to bring back students in a limited capacity, I would likely ask two members of each lab team to come to class each week and alternate who comes in each week."

In the past year, Hughes found that lectures work fine in online mode, giving students the flexibility of watching live or viewing recordings as schedules permit.

Lab activities using Google Slides, Zoom and online data sources were just OK, he said. "For the sciences, the priority is to get students back into hands-on labs, working in cooperative teams. That's where the most important science learning happens and it's the hardest thing to re-create in an online setting," Hughes wrote.

Bandyopadhyay is expected to promote dual enrollment and transfer opportunities to put more students in MJC classes.

He is talking with local school districts about opportunities for students to earn at least 15 college credits from MJC before graduating from high school. He's also working on arrangements with UC Merced and Stanislaus State University for MJC students, earning a two-year degree, to transfer and complete a bachelor's degree at the colleges with minimal student debt.

To inspire students to register for classes, Bandyopadhyay noted in a June 1 update that Modesto native and filmmaker George Lucas was once an MJC student who transferred and went on to an extraordinary career.

Modesto Junior College has seen a profound demographic shift, however, since the days middle-class kids cruised the streets and talked of starting college with two years at "JC."

Shift in demographics at MJC

The portion of MJC students who are economically disadvantaged grew from 48 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 65 percent in 2015-16.

Today, the student body is 54 percent Latino, 33 percent white, 5 percent Asian and 3 percent Black. About 5 percent are permanent residents who are not U.S. citizens, and an additional 4 percent are temporary residents, refugees or undocumented.

Elida Miranda-Zaragosa, a student success specialist at the English Language Learner Welcome Center at MJC, said many English-learning students who stopped taking classes were parents whose home situation changed during the COVID pandemic. Their school-age children learning at home took up their time.

Center staff said students coming from high schools are testing at lower levels of English language acquisition than in the past. Nonresident students who ran into language barriers and did not complete three years of high school don't qualify for in-state tuition rates under Assembly Bill 540, staff said.

If the students don't learn enough English in high school, "it can take several semesters for that student to make up the required hours to qualify for AB 540," said Mary Calderon, a staff member at the center serving immigrant and Dreamer students.

Calderon said a program at Davis High School used to provide extra time for newcomer students to learn English, so they're ready for college. But Modesto City Schools cut the newcomer program to a single year of English language development.

"Because it is one year, it is only going to be more challenging for the students to have access to college," said Anita Villasenor, a counselor for the immigrant and refugee students at Davis. Under the new framework, program enrollment was about 85 this year, dropping from 290 in 2018, because the one-year limit eliminated most students from the program.

"Navigating the school system is very difficult when you have limited language skills. I predict many kids will try going to work instead of going on to MJC," the counselor said.

©2021 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.