Santa Rosa Junior College extends campus closure through end of 2020

The college's decision was another sign life for county residents will continue to be restricted, even though Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase will issue a new public health order Friday allowing certain activities and businesses to resume.|

As Sonoma County prepared to issue a new stay-at-home order that has no end date but lifts a ban on construction and eases some business restrictions, Santa Rosa Junior College announced Thursday that students would be unable to return to campus through at least December.

SRJC President Frank Chong said the Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses, which serve 22,000 students, would remain closed to most students and the vast majority of classes in its 102nd year this fall would take place online.

The college’s decision was another sign that life for county residents - especially students- will continue to be restricted, even though some activities, such as golfing and house painting, will be able to resume.

“There was a growing need from the faculty and students to know one way or the other,” Chong said. “Planning was paramount, and our faculty need time to get the professional development they need to teach distance learning at a high level.”

For the first time since the earliest cases of COVID-19 among local residents were reported in March, the number of people who have recovered from the disease, 128, exceeded in number the 114 still considered infectious, according to county data.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said she will be signing a new public health order Friday designed to address the profound toll isolation orders have had on the local economy by allowing some businesses deemed low-risk to operate.

In addition to construction, other operations to be permitted include retail sales at plant nurseries and florists; landscaping and gardening work; real estate showings and other activities that have yet to be announced.

“Getting people back to work is a priority,” Mase said.

The extended stay-at-home order will have no expiration date, said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin, “so we can be responsive and flexible.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, during her occasional nightly Facebook update, said other activities would be allowed by the new order, such as golfing, house painting, car and bicycle sales. Pet grooming was not on the list, said Hopkins, who called the issue a “thorn in her side.”

She said the county is working on possibly opening up boat ramps for recreational fishing as early as next week.

Chong said he made the decision to continue with remote instruction through the end of the year without consulting Mase. But the move was informed by recommendations from her department, as well as guidance from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, Chong said.

Spring graduation for more than 2,000 SRJC students will now be held May 23 online in a live video stream, Chong said. Most scheduled events on campus, including the Summer Repertory Theatre, have been canceled.

Mase said she thinks the college made the right choice.

Mase said she was doubtful she would allow K-12 schools to reopen campuses for in-person learning any time soon, despite Newsom’s suggestion earlier this week that schools could make up for lost learning by reopening as soon as late July.

“We don’t have any plans to reopen schools right away,” Mase said. “I believe it would be hard to reopen schools with social distance.”

Aggressive testing, contact investigations and other public health methods to prevent a surge of seriously ill people from overwhelming hospitals is a long-game strategy.

Thursday night, the county reported 12 more cases of COVID-19, bringing the total positive cases to 244. All told, there have been 5,850 tests conducted in the county for the virus, the vast majority negative.

Twenty-five people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been hospitalized in Sonoma County during the epidemic, according to the county. Five people with COVID-19 and another 14 people suspected to have the disease were being treated at local hospitals as of Thursday, the latest data available from the state.

Even with lower numbers of positive cases than epidemiological models predicted, Mase said people must continue limiting their activities beyond essential work, errands and exercise. Face coverings and physical distance requirements remain in place - especially in business settings.

The public health department is still building up its main strategies to prevent the virus from circulating widely in the community - primarily through widespread testing and by tracking each person with COVID-19 and anyone they might have exposed.

Mase said the county is still waiting to receive guidance from Newsom’s office on schools. But the governor does not have the authority to direct school districts when to reopen - that rests with local public health officers and school districts.

“I really don’t see us opening schools in July,” Mase said.

In March, Mase and the Sonoma County Office of Education advised the area’s 40 public school districts to extend a temporary shutdown order for the rest of the school year. Within hours, it was adopted throughout the county.

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington said he expects to meet with Mase and local school superintendents later this month to discuss what sort of conditions could allow campuses to reopen campuses in August.

“There are many options for what school may look like depending on the circumstances in the fall,” he said in a statement. “These could include continued distance learning, in-person learning, a blended model, or pushing back the school start date.”

Decisions at colleges and universities have been made independently. Paul Gullixson, Sonoma State University spokesman, said the 9,200-person campus has not ruled out a return in the fall, but is still reviewing the revised orders and guidance from Newsom and county public health.

Roughly 2,600 SRJC classes were suspended on March 12.

In a frenzied two-week blitz, about 2,500 were converted from face-to-face instruction to online learning, which began March 30 with eight weeks remaining in the semester.

Ninety-two were canceled, mostly because they wouldn’t translate well to a computer screen, like performing arts, welding and culinary skills.

Some programs that train essential workers like police, firefighters and nurses, or rely on hands-on lab work, will be offered in-person in the fall, but with restrictions that allow for social distancing protocols, Chong said.

But traditional lecture classes would be difficult to hold safely in the small classrooms that fill the oak-studded campus on Mendocino Avenue. One instructor calculated about 10 students would fit into a typical classroom. Chong said he couldn’t guarantee the safety of his students and employees and added that he had concerns about the possibility of a second wave of the coronavirus later this year.

“Many expressed concerns about coming back too soon,” he said. “Even with social distancing it’s difficult.”

The switch to distance learning has been a vital but difficult experience for many of the school’s 283 full-time faculty and about 1,000 part-time instructors.

Sean Martin, a philosophy instructor and president of the All Faculty Association, the union that represents instructors, said he has been working from 8 a.m. to midnight six days a week since the campus shutdown.

“The workload for online instruction just makes it fundamentally exhausting,” said Martin, who teaches only two classes because of his union role. “I’m wiped out.”

In a classroom, he can interact with 30 to 40 students at once, while online it could take 40 emails and up to two hours to deliver the same information, he said.

Instructors who used to spend 95% of their time honing the best way to communicate with students now expend the same effort “just managing the technology side of it,” he said.

And for all that, Martin said, online education is a “diminished experience.”

“We are biological beings; we’ve adapted ways of communicating that are really difficult to convert to an online medium,” he said. “Students are not getting a robust education in this context.”

Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed to this report.

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