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Sonoma State University to keep most classes online during fall semester

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Sonoma State University will continue classes online in the fall semester as part of an extension of distance learning California State University Chancellor Tim White announced Tuesday that will essentially keep campuses of all 23 state schools closed through the end of 2020.

The decision to stick with virtual instruction as the main way to teach about 480,000 students at the nation’s largest four-year university system provides another sign of the tremendous, persisting effect of the coronavirus pandemic on higher education while Sonoma County and other parts of the state slowly reopen public life.

“It truly is unprecedented,” Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki said in an interview. “We’ve been following the science and the health issues and the sense is this is the responsible thing to do, looking out for the health and safety of our campus.”

During an online meeting of the Cal State board of trustees, White said the decision to adopt a digital-first approach allows individual campuses more flexibility than reopening with a possible second shutdown looming should another devastating wave of coronavirus cases occur in the fall.

It also would be difficult to cover the costs incurred from keeping campuses clean and providing classroom instruction with every student 6 feet apart, he said, in delivering the message on behalf of what’s believed to be the first big university in America planning to keep campuses closed for the rest of the year.

There will be exceptions for in-person classes that can’t be replicated virtually and could be held safely on campus, White said. He pointed to hands-on clinical classes, essential physical and life science lab courses, creative arts and senior capstone projects as examples.

SSU may be able to host more campus activities than other state universities based on low infection rates in the community and the ability to socially distance on a 269-acre Rohnert Park campus that typically has 9,000 students. More than 2,000 students already have paid their deposits for the fall semester, Sakaki said.

Students accepted to a Cal State school have until June 1 to decide whether they will enroll in the fall, and so Sakaki said “it’s too early to tell” if primarily offering classes online will cause a drop in enrollment or fewer students living on campus. In normal times, about one-third of students live in on-campus housing at SSU.

“The question is would they choose to move up here,” she said. “Some may, but it’s going to be a small number. We’re not going to be filled as we would in previous years. It’s sad because we know how much students look forward to that (campus) experience.”

The SSU leader said she expects to have a clearer vision of how the fall semester will look by the end of the month. Two groups of faculty, staff and students have been studying how academics and campus operations would continue in a full semester of distance learning. The university plans to use a portion of its emergency federal relief funding to cover professional development in the coming months for teachers continuing to adapt and improve virtual classes, Sakaki said.

SSU suspended classroom instruction and closed its campus March 12 in the early part of the local COVID-19 outbreak. Later it had extended remote learning through the end of the spring semester.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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

Subsequently, the university signed a $5 million contract with Sonoma County to provide at least 580 beds on campus to house at-risk homeless people and provide extra space for coronavirus patients, if there’s a surge of local residents infected that need care and area hospitals are full. The deal ends June 7, but could be extended another 90 days in three, 30-day increments.

Sakaki said Tuesday the university has not decided yet if it will extend that contract, or whether largely online instruction in the fall would mean it could provide campus space to the county through the full length of the contract.

“We haven’t needed it yet, and that’s good news,” Sakaki said, alluding to the county’s ongoing public health emergency order for most people to shelter at home that has greatly suppressed community spread of the virus. “But we’re ready if they need it.”

Meanwhile, the university had put off making a decision on the fall semester as some California schools, including Santa Rosa Junior College, already had extended distance learning through 2020. And statewide, California’s other four-year university system, the University of California, has not announced its fall semester plans for 10 campuses and about 300,000 students.

Sakaki indicated last week she would decide the fate of the fall semester before the June 1 deadline for students to commit to enroll at SSU, but intensifying discussions around the Cal State system and calls from families who wanted clarity prompted White’s announcement Tuesday, she said.

“There were no surprises,” she said. “I think the interaction from the board and the response — it’s a planning framework for the system and there will be variability (for each campus).”

The decision to prolong distance education comes as both Sonoma County colleges finalized plans for their respective graduation ceremonies to honor departing students. SRJC plans to livestream a video on May 23 at 9 a.m. that will recognize the almost 2,100 graduates. Those completing career education certificates will be commemorated in a similar virtual ceremony on May 22 at 5 p.m. Students in the class of 2020 also will have the opportunity to participate in the 2021 commencement.

On Saturday, SSU will post a graduation video on its website as a tribute to this year’s graduating students, university spokesman Paul Gullixson said. The video is not intended to replace the traditional commencement. The university intends to have an in-person graduation ceremony for this year’s graduates in spring 2021, he said.

As the university environment continues to take shape with more online class instruction, the SSU president hopes prospective students will not be deterred from enrolling and will move ahead with their academic pursuits beyond high school.

“Education is so important and we will endure,” Sakaki said. “The job market is tough and you need that education. Now is not the time to pause.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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