The pandemic has not made Chad Hickox’s first full year as Walla Walla Community College’s president an easy one.
Now he’s looking forward to a winter quarter that he hopes can turn things around.
Facing a reduced budget and prospective students weary about distance learning, maintaining their employment and helping their own kids through the educational challenges of COVID-19, the college saw a nearly 30% decline in enrollment for its fall quarter.
In response to the pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee this summer told state universities and colleges to expect a 15% cut in state funding.
This all has resulted in two rounds of layoffs at the college. Layoffs first occurred before fall quarter when seven staff — including two faculty members, two classified employees and three exempt employees — were cut. Winter layoffs included 10 more classified employees, eight more faculty members and 11 administrative staff members.
In addition, several vacant positions were not filled.
Hickox hopes to see enrollment increases for winter quarter, but admitted that additional layoffs could occur if it doesn’t happen.
“The loss of tuition because of the decline in enrollment for fall quarter has already put a crink in our budget for the year that we need to dig out of,” Hickox said. “If we can’t grow our enrollment back closer to normal levels, we will have to look at how we can reduce our costs.”
Hickox said the lack of enrollment could be due to a number of issues, including concern over online classes, would-be students who are parents prioritizing their children’s education over their own during the pandemic, or some students simply waiting to see if things get better.
Academically, Hickox said he really believes the school is doing a good job supporting students who have decided to enroll now.
“We feel that once people have made the commitment to register and take classes, they have, by and large, had a good experience,” Hickox said. “We did a survey at the end of last spring quarter asking them what changes we could make … We learned that students needed some structure and some flexibility and they needed it about equally.
Hickox said that survey led the school to develop its mostly-online program that has been named “Warrior Flex.”
“We’re doing another survey in the fall, it’s already open, to find out how we did and see if there’s refinements we have to make,” Hickox.
The school has committed to using Warrior Flex for the entire school year.
“We wanted to provide some stability for students,” Hickox said. “We think that’s one thing we can offer right now. You see a lot of colleges that are bringing students back to campus, and then sending them home or having to quarantine them in the residence halls.”
Hickox said Warrior Flex has been designed to appeal to students who prefer the structure of in-person learning, while presenting the flexibility of an online course.
In many online courses, instruction is delivered through e-learning programs, pre-recorded lectures and slideshows. While there is no “live” meeting time for the class, students can ask questions of their instructors via email.
In Warrior Flex, however, classes have meeting times just as they would using an in-person schedule. Students can attend those sessions on Zoom and ask questions and participate as they would if they were in the classroom.
The sessions are recorded and made available for students unable to attend the live class.
Hickox said students who are unsure about online learning may discover they like being able to replay lectures and pause them to look something up that they may not understand.
This system of instruction is how most students — including those in the college’s transfer degree programs — are attending classes. However, Hickox said Warrior Flex allows for in-person instruction in classes that cannot be taught online.
In a given quarter, a little over half of WWCC’s students are enrolled in the college’s Workforce program. Classes in this program are designed to get students directly into the work force.
“We train people for a job,” said Jerry Anhorn, WWCC’s dean of workforce education. “It’s that simple. Most of the degrees [in the Workforce program] are what we call terminal degrees. They are two-year degrees and after getting your degree, you’re headed out to work.”
Hickox said that because some classes in these programs simply can’t be taught online, some courses are being taught in-person.
Anhorn said between the Walla Walla and Clarkston campuses, about 200 students are taking such courses in person.
“The majority of the work in these classes are done face-to-face — or mask-to-mask, as we like to say now — while doing everything we need to follow the governor’s Safe Start plan for higher education,” Anhorn said.
But just because these classes are in person doesn’t mean that things are back-to-normal for workforce students.
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s pretty normal,” Anhorn said. “With COVID, we have new restrictions and spacing requirements. We had to space out some programs, we had to move classes into different classrooms and use different stuff. We pivoted well, but it’s not back to normal.”
He said while the safety protocols have mostly worked well, there have been a few bumps in the road. Among them, he said, was a cosmetology student testing positive for COVID-19 and the program having to be moved online for a few weeks.
“The cosmetology program got shut down for a bit,” Anhorn said. “The students weren’t following our protocols. After that, everyone learned really quickly.”
Anhorn said students were socializing and eating with each other on breaks. He said after that, no other program has had similar issues.
Meeting student challenges
Both Hickox and Anhorn said they believe students can continue their education now and receive quality instruction despite the changes caused by the pandemic.
“We are very accomplished at providing instruction, whether it’s a virtual format or a face-to-face format,” Hickox said. “We know the challenges students face and we have lots of resources in place to help students be successful no matter what the format might be.”
He added that students who may feel they can’t afford college at the moment should know the college has both state and federal resources available to help students pay for school. He said such students should contact the college’s financial aid department.
Anhorne said students wanting workforce training should not “wait and see” what happens and should instead enroll now.
“Why wait?” Anhorne said. “We’re still doing it. COVID has impacted how we’re doing it, but it hasn’t impacted the education value … If you want to wait and hope [the COVID-19 situation] gets better, well, hopefully it does. But it could get worse.”