California universities debate how long remote learning will continue amid pandemic

As state and county officials have ordered residents to stay home indefinitely to curb the spread of the coronavirus, colleges are grappling with how long they’ll be forced to continue remote learning.|

As state and county officials have ordered residents to stay home indefinitely to curb the spread of the coronavirus, colleges are grappling with how long they’ll be forced to continue remote learning.

While universities across the state are holding their classes online for the rest of the spring semester, many are still unsure what college life will look like beyond then, or when students will be able to return to campus.

Sonoma State University officials decided that all summer session classes will be held remotely but are still looking at a variety of options for the fall, including starting the semester with remote learning and transitioning back to in-person classes later or having a combination of some small in-person classes and larger remote classes. Spokesman Paul Gullixson said the university is relying on guidance from the county’s public health department and is looking at what other schools are doing “to see what fits best for Sonoma State.”

“We’re looking at all our options and looking at all the possibilities, but like everybody else we’re watching this as it goes and we’re trying to figure out what the situation is going to look like after we reach our peak,” Gullixson said. “At this point, we have made no decision and we haven’t set a date as yet for when we’re going to make a decision.”

Even when campuses reopen, students headed off to college could be looking at a radically different experience.

Sonoma State’s campus is still housing about 157 students and offering to-go meals from its dining hall, but it’s not clear yet how services will be affected in the fall, Gullixson said. And when it comes to sports, the university is facing a series of question marks.

“Are teams going to be able to play? Are people going to be able to watch? Are there going to be rules on how far apart you are?” Gullixson said. “We’ll figure this out. There’s a lot that’s going to be needed to be decided over the summer.”

Even if the university gets the “green light” from health officials to reopen, though, Gullixson said he anticipates that it won’t be “back to business as usual.” There likely will be a period where students, staff and faculty still need to take precautions - such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing protocols - to prevent a surge in coronavirus cases.

“Based on what we’re seeing from everybody, I think it’s unlikely that this fall everything will be back to normal,” Gullixson said. “It’s just hard to know how that’s going to be reflected, how that’s going to be demonstrated, how restrictive that’s going to be on campus and in the community.”

Many universities that draw large numbers of students from Sonoma County, such as UC Berkeley and Stanford, are also still weighing their options for classes next fall. UC Davis told its students that while no final decision has been made, some or all classes for the 2020-21 school year may be remote.

On Thursday, the Santa Rosa Junior College announced that remote instruction will continue through the end of the fall semester.

For Max Owens, a freshman at the Santa Rosa Junior College, this could mean that he and his teammates on the swim team won’t be able to compete next year, which would be “really disappointing,” he said.

Owens said he and his teammates have been doing some land workouts on their own to keep up with their training, but he hasn’t been able to swim in over a month. While the team doesn’t compete in the fall semester, it’s “a big part” of their training and they use that time to get into shape. Without it, even if in-person instruction resumes in spring 2021, Owens said it would be “really difficult” to compete.

“I miss my coaches, and I miss my teammates a lot. Not being able to see them - it’s really heartbreaking,” Owens said.

Grace Alchemy, who is in a relationship with Owens, is a freshman at Stanford and moved back home to Santa Rosa to stay with her family after classes shifted online. She’s hopeful that in-person classes will resume for Stanford’s fall quarter, but she’s concerned that the longer it takes for the university to make a decision, the more precarious her living situation might be. She was planning to room with a friend in campus housing, but she is worried that might not work out and hasn’t received any information from Stanford about the housing draw, which is usually conducted in April.

Stanford told its students Tuesday it will likely not make a decision about the fall quarter until June, and that housing plans will depend on that decision.

“It’s making me kind of anxious because I really don’t want to end up in a poor living situation,” Alchemy said.

Alchemy said the transition to virtual learning has been “really difficult.” Some of the classes she needed to take as a pre-med student, such as chemistry labs, weren’t offered in an online format this term. Stanford is working to offer some of those classes online for the summer, but Alchemy said a virtual lab is still “a poor equivalent” to an in-person one.

In addition to academic challenges, Alchemy said remote learning has impeded her social interactions with her classmates. She has used Zoom to stay in touch with her friends, but she still feels isolated.

“It’s been very difficult because I feel like I haven’t had a lot of time on campus … to build strong relationships,” she said.

Many universities have made efforts to connect students and maintain a sense of community. Alchemy’s dorm has weekly house meetings online, and Owens and his teammates chat over Zoom as much as possible. Sonoma State transformed its trivia night that usually takes place twice a week at a campus cafe to a virtual format so students can still socialize.

“We want (students) to know that even though we may not be there in a physical sense, we’re here supporting them,” Gullixson said. “We’re trying to create or reestablish the campus life as much as possible in these digital formats and keep people together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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