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Sonoma State University president says decision in the works on fall 2020 semester

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Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki says she has little more than one month to sort through all the factors and uncertainties that will go into her decision about how students will resume classes during the fall 2020 semester.

Sakaki, in an interview Monday, said she’s looking at three basic options: in-person classes with pronounced physical distancing and enhanced hygiene; continued remote learning through the rest of the calendar year; or some combination of the two, where large lecture classes might be held online but smaller groups in certain courses might meet on the Rohnert Park campus.

Part of it depends on state and county health orders, part on guidance from the California State University chancellor, and much hinges on what happens over the next few weeks with the coronavirus outbreak in the region and any resulting public health orders.

But Sakaki clarified Monday that the determination about SSU’s approach to fall classes is hers to make, with input from her closest advisers.

“We know we need to make a decision fairly quickly,” Sakaki said, adding that she expected to reach that determination the end of May or early June at the latest.

Awaiting Sakaki’s verdict is a student body that is normally about 9,000, though this year that could vary based on enrollment decisions, and not only for would-be first-year students. Also waiting on word are hundreds of faculty members and college employees unsure about the exact shape of their jobs next semester.

Another influential group in the campus community: the parents of college-age children whose own return to SSU may be part of the equation.

So there’s no question about the pressure to urgently resolve the issue.

But, amid a deadly global pandemic, it’s no easy matter to balance the kind of uncertainties now facing those who run institutions of higher education. Some have already made their call.

Santa Rosa Junior College announced last week it would extend its remote instruction through the remainder of the calendar year. San Jose State said it is planning to offer online courses and a mix of those taught remotely and in person. The University of California system, meanwhile, said it would only reopen for on-site instruction “when it is safe to do so” — a benchmark that UC officials signaled would be set based on talks with federal, state and local health authorities.

Many are in a similar limbo, according to a list maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“We are really eager to make the decision,” said Paul Gullixson, an SSU spokesman. “But more than that, we want to make the right decision.”

The scheduled start to fall classes remains Aug. 18.

Incoming freshmen normally would have had until Friday, May 1 to commit make a deposit on tuition and housing if they wanted to reserve a spot.

But as with many schools, SSU has delayed the deadline a month so students can wait for more information before committing.

That hasn’t stopped parents and students from contacting the university and pleading for news so they can make decisions on housing, travel and overnight lodging tied to move-in dates, Sakaki said.

“So we’ve got a little bit of time, and not a lot,” she said.

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Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

With finals on the horizon and a class of seniors about to graduate, some of Sakaki’s focus right now is on trying to honor those leaving school.

Her days are largely a series of meetings, including near-daily sessions with CSU Chancellor Tim White and fellow presidents of the 23-college CSU system.

Located across the state, in urban and rural settings — places hit hard by COVID-19 and others less so — the colleges will largely take a campus-by-campus approach on how to reopen next fall, Sakaki said.

“We’re in that conversation right now,” she said.

Either way, she stressed that health and safety would come first — not only of students, but also of staff and faculty, some of whom may be particularly vulnerable due to age or underlying health conditions, Sakaki noted.

If a decision is made to hold even some classes in-person, protective equipment such as masks and thermometers and gallons of hand sanitizer, would need to be procured, along with additional janitorial staff to ensure extra cleaning on a regular basis.

Should the campus go that route, Sakaki and Gullixson said there would be enough time to reclaim parts of campus, including the recreation center and several student housing complexes that have been repurposed for coronavirus surge capacity and taking in at-risk homeless residents amid the pandemic. The full term of that contract with the county, for up to $5 million, would end by Sept. 7 provided both parties agree, though the college has the ability to end it as soon as June 7.

In the event of continued online instruction, there are still more lessons to learn about translating the classroom experience to a digital platform, even as the campus and its instructors have worked hard to make that transition since the mid-March closure, Sakaki said.

Some instructors were better prepared than others to make the hasty switch to online instruction, but she said she had faith in roughly 575 faculty members to continue to grow in the role.

“The student-teacher, student-mentor role is just so, so important, and it’s really hard to replicate that in an online environment,” she said. “But we have incredibly creative faculty. We have a very active faculty development center, and while we had to switch to remote classrooms very quickly, we were able to do it.”

At a time when experts are warning the pandemic and its erosive power on college enrollment could prove ruinous for some universities, Sakaki admitted to some restless nights.

“I couldn’t be a very responsible leader and say, ‘Oh, I’m not worried about that,’ ” she said. “We’re trying to do the very best I can.”

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

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