By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

Masks are still required indoors and health guidance continues to evolve, but Merced College students and faculty will finally return to campus when the Fall 2021 semester begins Aug. 16.

That audible breath you just heard is the sound of the college community exhaling tension and boredom after 16 months spent interacting with the world through computer screens during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Students have missed getting tutoring and counseling and hearing lectures in person, and just talking to people in the quad,” Vice President for Student Services Michael McCandless said. “We’re all looking forward to regaining some of that.”

McCandless said “some” because 60% of classes will be held online. About 10% will be hybrid courses — online classrooms, with labs and testing on campus. The remaining 30% will be held on campus.

That is an increase from the limited launch in Summer 2021. Even a partial rollout, with buildings opening and student services returning to campus on July 26, has lifted spirits.

Merced College faculty had returned to campus on July 12, already working to improve the college experience.

“[The pandemic] forced all of us in instruction to ask how we’re teaching and serving students,” new Assistant Superintendent/Vice President of Instruction Karissa Morehouse said. “Faculty have been innovative with new practices and new technology. The pandemic has already forced us to serve students better.”

There could be no in-person classes this fall without student services on campus. Enrollment, which is down at community colleges throughout California, likely won’t improve until that happens in full.

There will be safeguards in place. For example, for face-to-face counseling appointments, students will receive text messages when their counselor is available, rather than gathering in one place while they wait. If there is room to spread out in a class or meeting, everyone will be encouraged to do so.

“But the students are slowly trickling back,” McCandless said. “We must remember some new students have not been inside an actual classroom in 16 months. The message is, ‘We’re here, we’re back and we’re face-to-face.’”

Improvements for students

Students will find a welcome change later this month. For years, they’ve had to hike back and forth from the Learning Resource Center (LRC) in the library on the edge of campus, to the Student Success & Tutorial Center (SSTC) closer to the front of campus for writing help and tutoring. Now the SSTC is located in the LRC.

Also, the Equity Center, which houses the Umoja and Puente programs, has moved into the Student Union to get closer to the students it serves.

It's a focused frenzy for Morehouse and her instruction team as they welcome students back to classrooms.

“The key for us is utilizing the momentum of the pandemic,” Morehouse said. “It was nothing anyone asked for and nothing anyone wants to do again, but we learned important things.”

With that in mind, Merced College put together a team of faculty along with the IT department, to identify new technology for the classrooms to incorporate Zoom and other online resources.

“The pandemic forced us to use technology in new ways, to teach using innovative practices,” Morehouse said. “We’re asking, ‘How do we take Merced College into the future and create more accessible and dynamic learning experiences for today’s student?’”

The goal is to provide new programs and schedules to meet the demands of the community. The college is working out the final details to train highly sought-after truck drivers and hospitality industry workers. These programs meet the needs of local employers and prepare students for high-paying jobs in our region.

In addition to new programs, the college is looking to expand successful program structures like Fast-Track, where students are in the same classes together with a counselor over an accelerated timeframe. This model has been extremely successful in CTE programs and has elements the college plans to implement in other areas, like transfer degrees. The college will also add more six-week classes allowing students to jump into the semester at various times.

Students can start registering for six-week courses starting in August, mid-September, and late October.

“We’re starting to package degrees in ways students want to now attend college—more options and more flexible.” Morehouse said.

Morehouse said preparing for fall has energized the faculty.

“Our faculty are excited to see students in the classroom and excited to use the skills they have developed online over the last year and a half,” she said. “Kudos to our staff who have survived the pandemic using new teaching practices. We’re taking that momentum to improve the student experience both in person and online.”

It will be as positive a reboot for Merced College as anyone could expect 16 months ago, which might make people a little giddy. When students were first allowed back on campus in late June, McCandless ran into other administrators in the lobby of their building. They were—mostly tongue in cheek—marveling at what they saw outside.

Look! Students!

“We were excited to see the students back in their natural habitat,” he said. “They were not unicorns. They do exist. We are so excited to get back to it.”