SSU president says school year is starting with energy, excitement despite pandemic

When classes start Tuesday at the Rohnert Park campus, the vast majority of students will be somewhere else, learning through online platforms.|

The hustle and bustle that comes with move-in weekend at Sonoma State University will be comparatively subdued this year and much of the student housing left vacant as the Rohnert Park campus embarks upon a new academic year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The university will welcome its smallest freshman class in at least 20 years as college students and families across the country rethink their options, resulting in a drop in enrollment that has profound financial implications for the university.

But SSU President Judy Sakaki said there was energy and excitement in the air as students, staff and faculty prepared for a fall semester shaped largely by the need for social distancing and remote operations.

When classes start Tuesday at the Rohnert Park campus, the vast majority of students will be somewhere else, learning through online platforms and living at home with their families or in some other off-campus setting.

Fifty-five approved courses, labs and field studies critical to upper-division students will be permitted to meet in-person, though some sessions may be held virtually and some classmates may meet in groups, using head-mounted cameras, for instance, to record experiments or field work for others.

“It’s a different way of teaching, a different mode of instruction, being sensitive to the health and safety of students, but we feel the education is going to be a quality education,” Sakaki said Friday. “It’s going to be excellent. It’s just different.”

The adjustments being made at SSU are part of a nationwide shift in education at all grade levels, begun abruptly last March when the coronavirus began to spread, shutting schools and businesses across the nation and shifting much of their work online.

College administrators have spent much of the time since planning for the fall amid changing COVID transmission rates, government regulations and student expectations.

California State University Chancellor Tim White staked out a conservative position early on, announcing by mid-May that the 23-campus system would maintain virtual instruction, with few exceptions, through the fall 2020 semester — perhaps anticipating the statewide surge in COVID-19 cases that has ensued since Memorial Day.

Like every other CSU campus, SSU staff and faculty developed a detailed plan for moving forward within required strictures to reduce the risks to students and university employees. They have sought to preserve the essential mission of educating students while creating a sense of community, though much of it in the virtual world of the internet.

But as expected, enrollment has declined — falling 11% across all classes this fall, compared with last year.

The freshman class has shrunk by 37%, dropping to about 950 students, said Robert Eyler, interim campus spokesman and economics professor. It is the smallest freshman class at SSU in at least two decades, he said.

At last check, 449 students — about a fifth of the usual number — were planning to move into student housing this weekend, though another 125 student-athletes were expected to arrive in October to begin training for spring competition, unless coronavirus transmission rates remain high.

That still leaves 751 unused rooms — even with diminished capacity created by requirements that each student have a single room and a separate bathroom — unless some of the more than 2,000 people who put down deposits for campus housing at the start of the summer claim a room later in the school year, Eyler said.

In addition to concerns about exposure to the virus, a shift to mostly remote instruction means Seawolves can attend class from anyplace they can get online and also changes significantly the experience of being a college student. That’s one reason people may have decided not to attend school this fall or have decided to stay home while they do.

School officials also speculate that economic disruption and job loss have brought financial uncertainty and instability to bear.

“It’s really a combination,” Sakaki said. “We have students who’ve said, and parents who’ve said, ‘It’s really far, and we’re worried. We have elderly grandparents, and we want to spend the time here.’

“We’ve had others who’ve said, ‘I want to send my daughter to live in your residence halls. She could stay home, but she had such a great experience last year, which was her first year, she was ready to pack up and come back,’ “ Sakaki said.

The situation is similar at other institutions of higher learning, even the elites. At Harvard University, only 25% of its undergraduates accepted an invitation to reside on campus, far fewer than the 40% it had prepared for.

While the CSU chancellor’s office did not have a systemwide enrollment forecast, individual campuses reported declines in enrollment and on-campus residents. At Humboldt State University, for example, enrollment has dropped 11%, though a spokeswoman said some decline had been expected before the pandemic.

At Cal State University Sacramento, overall enrollment was down less than 2%, but there was a nearly 9% drop in freshman enrollment, and sign-ups for on-campus housing were at 22% of last year.

At San Francisco State, enrollment has declined 10%, with freshman enrollment less than half of what it was last year.

“What we’re finding is Northern California is more impacted with enrollment drops than Southern California,” Sakaki said, though why is not entirely clear.

What hasn’t changed, at SSU, at least, is the commitment to supporting students toward success and graduation, she said.

But systemwide cuts and falling enrollment have sliced nearly $20 million from what had been budgeted revenues of just more than $149 million, Eyler said, forcing 12% cuts across departments.

Earlier this month, the school warned 51 workers they could be laid off in 90 days. Most were cafeteria and food service workers, as well as performing arts technicians.

Sakaki said she still hopes some of those individuals may be retained part time. Her goal, she said, is to ensure the campus comes back “even better, even stronger” than it was, once the pandemic is over, even if if it requires being “a little different, because the world is changing.”

“I think administrators, we’re often asked what keeps us up at night, and I would not be truthful and transparent if I said this was not worrisome. It’s worrisome, right? It’s an unprecedented time. It’s leading a university through something that we have never — there’s no book on this. There’s no leadership training on how to come out on the other side of this. So yes there’s worry.

“But we have a great team of people who are thoughtful, who have different perspectives, who bring expertise to the table, and we’ll roll up our sleeves together.”

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

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.