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Sonoma State eyeing 20% drop in freshmen enrollment as pandemic upends college system

Sonoma State University is on track to see a 20% decline in enrollment among incoming freshmen and up to an 8% drop campuswide, as faculty and staff brace for an academic year clouded by budget cuts and unbalanced by students still working out where school fits in the midst of a global pandemic and nationwide recession.

With nearly all instruction scheduled to be online this fall, and health guidelines governing everything from campus housing to cleaning schedules, little will be normal about the coming year at SSU or most other institutions of higher learning in the country.

Campus housing, usually utilized by about one-third of SSU’s nearly 9,000 students, will accommodate about 50% fewer people this year, due to spacing and individual restroom requirements, administrators said.

Students living off-campus, with college roommates or family members, might be sharing space and technology used by others for remote work, learning and child care.

And faculty members, their skills honed in classrooms, are faced with new challenges as they convert instruction to an online environment that in some cases renders students into boxes on a computer screen, said environmental history professor Laura Watt, the outgoing faculty chairwoman.

But SSU President Judy Sakaki said she and other college administrators hope new high school graduates won’t put off university education just because it won’t look like they had imagined.

“They’ve prepared themselves well. They’re ready to continue on. And to pause ... sometimes they won’t come back,” Sakaki said. “So we are encouraging students to just continue on.

“It’s a different mode of instruction than likely they would have thought they would have, but the education is still going to be there. It’s going to be strong, and it’s still going to prepare them for their future career.”

The school has been building in as much flexibility as possible so that students have extra time to make decisions this year, and “a lot can change,” Sakaki said.

“Hopefully, we’ll be more back to in-person classes by spring, but we don’t know,” said Paul Gullixson, SSU’s spokesman. “A lot of that depends on what happens with that second wave (of COVID-19 cases) which is anticipated. We just don’t know how bad that might be.”

SSU administrators and faculty have spent recent weeks planning various strategies for the upcoming academic year. The pandemic is the biggest unknown, but they also don’t yet know how bad the financial hit will be as the state resolves a projected $54 billion budget shortfall.

Though about 12,000 new and returning students are eligible to attend SSU this fall, the acceptance numbers so far suggest overall enrollment could be off pace by as much as 8%, Gullixson said.

Most of the drop-off is among freshmen, whose ranks were expected to decline on most campuses this fall, given the pandemic’s interference with the traditional college experience.

“There’s a lot of ‘what-ifs’ right now, and I think in the end, it’s going to work out the way it’s supposed to,” said Ryan Jasen Henne, dean of students at SSU, one of 23 California State University sites. “But right now, we’re making sure we’re consistent with what other CSUs are doing. We’re watching national trends. We’re following the directions of our chancellor, and we’re following the guidance of our president, Dr. Sakaki, who is a strong advocate for students.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to provide a safe space,” he said.

An operational plan for fall semester was submitted Monday to the California State University chancellor for his approval and includes a request for 26 upper division classes to be taught face-to-face. The courses include subjects such as chemistry lab, some art classes, nursing and subject areas that cannot be replicated in a virtual environment, Henne and other staff members said.

Instruction would have to be conducted in small groups and in a manner that would permit safeguards against viral spread.

All other classes would be held online.

First-year classes, in particular, tend to be large and therefore challenging to hold in person, Gullixson said.

A lecture hall, for instance, might hold 250 students. But spread those students 6 feet apart and it would fit only 35, creating logistical obstacles that ultimately are cost-prohibitive.

Class registrations already completed by most returning students suggest a high level of confidence among those who endured the sudden pivot to remote instruction in March, when COVID-19 broke out in California, quickly closing school campuses at every level and resulting in widespread shelter-in-place orders around the region.

The new academic year begins Aug. 18, but returning students still have weeks left to register. Their deadline is July 1, but they can still register late, Gullixson said.

Students new to SSU, including freshmen, transfer and graduate students, had a June 1 deadline to commit for fall - pushed back from May 1 this year due to the pandemic. But even those students have a fallback period that extends as late as July 31, Gullixson said.

Where in most years, about 2,700 students would have put down deposits to guarantee enrollment by the deadline, about ?2,200 did this year, with the reduction mostly among freshmen, though a breakdown wasn’t available, Gullixson said.

The situation is expected to remain in flux. More than 2,000 people, for instance, have put down $300 deposits to secure student housing, far more than the 1,000-to-1,200 for which there is now capacity, and it’s not clear what those students might do if they aren’t able to live on campus.

But Henne said every effort is being made to provide as much of the college experience as possible in the absence of freedom to gather in large groups.

“We had 807 people doing a virtual orientation yesterday,” Henne said Tuesday. “The student leaders that we have, they’re engaging with the incoming first-year class. It’s really a dynamic space that we are delivering on.”

Watt, who as Academic Senate chair was not teaching last spring, said the sudden transition to online classrooms was an astounding feat. But intense discussions since and training underway this summer are aimed at providing instructors with both the technical tools and teaching skills to engage students in a virtual environment.

Already, they know that environment works well for some students and less so for others.

While some students may be fully interactive in a digital classroom, other students might have insufficient bandwidth, a computer without a camera or some other technical or personal exception that leaves them on the sidelines, Watt said.

Some instructors have decided to offer their students more flexibility by recording lectures that can be watched whenever possible.

Either way, it’s a less engaging environment, made more difficult for newer students who struggle without the structure of regular classes, Watt said.

“The university really did the best we could to try and accommodate different student needs,” she said. “The reality is some things worked better than others, and we’re doing everything we can now to beef things up and be more fully trained and prepared to teach mostly online this fall.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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