Community Colleges Struggle With California Fires

Community Colleges Struggle With California Fires

A haze of smoke rests on Lake Tahoe Community College as the Caldor fire approaches the southwest rim of the Lake Tahoe Basin. The area is emptying as nearby residents flee from the ashy air seeping into their homes and prepare for possible evacuation orders.

The surroundings feel like a “smoky, eerie ghost town” to Lake Tahoe Community College President Jeff DeFranco, president of the college. It’s certainly not the triumphant return to campus he hoped for this fall quarter after more than a year of remote learning due to the pandemic.

Some college leaders in California are struggling to meet to the manifold needs of students and community members as fires continue to spread across the state,while faced with during the start of an already fraught academic year amid an ongoing pandemic.

“I always joke, they didn’t teach me this in presidents’ school,” DeFranco said.

Lake Tahoe Community College planned to start in-person classes on Sept. 13 but pushed the start date back by a week shortly after the evacuation of Christmas Valley, a neighborhood where some faculty and students live, last Thursday. The college previously closed its campus on Aug.16 through Sept. 6, moving a major registration drive and all of its other services online.

Early September would usually be “prime time” for students to come to campus to consult with academic counselors advisors? and register for classes, but registration is down this year. As of Friday, the number of course units in which students enrolled fell about 18 percent compared to the same time last year. So far, the number of students registered for courses this fall, 1,049 students, fell 17.5 percent compared to the 1,272 students registered last fall. The institution, like many community colleges across the country, had already faced a double-digit enrollment decline during the pandemic.

“It’s really just impacting students’ ability to get in and get registered and get enrolled,” DeFranco said. “Everyone is distracted by the fire, in my opinion.”

DeFranco pointed out that the college’s experience of shifting online during the pandemic helped the college address the fire because the institution had migrated services online once before.

“Pre-COVID, if I would’ve shut down the campus, there would be no way to serve students,” he said.

Daisy Gonzales, acting chancellor of the California Community College System, said the pandemic has also given colleges experience working together to confront a crisis. 

“That’s different,” she said. “The community that we’ve built in the system in a crisis, the pandemic … and seeing everyone come together like a family. It’s different. It’s new.”

Joe Wyse, president and superintendent of Shasta College, for example, said Other college leaders have turned to him for advice. Shasta was badly affected by the Carr Fire in 2018 and the college hosted evacuees for several weeks at the time, hosting over 1,000 people at the height of the crisis.

In comparison, “this has been relatively easy to manage,” though there has been the “added stress of emergencies on top of emergencies,” he said. “We’ve got a good network here where we can call each other and ask questions … and serve as resources for each other.”

However, the combination of COVID-19 and the fire also poses a logistical challenges. DeFranco noted that the college recently changed its building ventilation systems to bring in more outside air to help prevent the spread of infections. Now that safety measure risks bringing hazardous, smokey air into campus buildings, a problem he believes many California campuses will have to handle, even if they’re not directly in a fire’s path.

Gonzales said the fire’s greatest impact on colleges has been “the compounding effect of living under crisis.” She sees this moment as a triple crisis – a pandemic, fires, and the poverty many low-income community college students were experiencing before these major disruptions to their lives.

“As we think about these fires, we think about extreme needs,” she said. “Many of our students were already facing food and housing insecurity. The pandemic only made it worse. When you add a wildfire [as a] component, you’ve not displaced communities. We have so many faculty, staff, and students who have lost their homes … That’s something unimaginable.”

So far, none of the community colleges have had damage to their facilities, she said. However, colleges will need to assess if infrastructure in campuses’ surrounding communities — road, sidewalks, ventilation, water, plumbing — have been affected in ways that could inconvenience students.

A couple colleges have also served as evacuation shelters for surrounding communities affected by the fires.

Shasta College has been hosting 20 to 30 evacuees in its gym since Aug. 8, an evacuation center run by the Red Cross, and student athletes and evacuees have had to tradeoff using the locker rooms for showers. The fires also mean sports teams can’t practice outside on days with poor air quality. The college temporarily shutdown a small outreach campus in Weaverville until Monday, as well.   

Lassen Community College has been particularly hard hit, overrun by evacuees from the Dixie Fire. The college’s president and superintendent, Trevor Albertson, described up to 500 people living in RVs in the parking lot, tents on the lawn, and in the campus gym. Fire fighters slept in math and science classrooms, and visitors ate out of the college’s cafeteria. Community members dropped by the campus with supplies for evacuees, everything from quilts to watermelons, he said. The college has served as an evacuation site on July 23, and because of improving conditions, closed the shelter last week.

“I think our students learned a lot about what public service is all about,” Albertson said.

Students at Lassen Community College had one day of in-person classes on Aug. 16 — with students on campus with fire fighters and evacuees — before the college had to close for a week.

“There was a huge evacuation, the smoke was really bad, ash was raining down on campus, and we had to get everybody out of here,” Albertson said. “I essentially shuttered the campus.”

Because of the air quality, the college moved more than a hundred students living in the dorms to Humboldt State University. Classes were paused until August 23, and the college held a week of online classes before a planned return to campus on Monday.

Adam Runyan, an academic counselor and president of the Academic Senate at the college, said the beginning of the fall semester has been understandably “hit or miss.”

He said some faculty members had to evacuate their homes and struggled to connect with students online and teach their first week of courses, which led to some confusion for students. Meanwhile, he estimates a third of students live in areas where houses were in danger or burned down.

“The faculty totally feel for the students because they’re in the same situation,” he said.

The number of students taking courses at the college is up from last year, in spite of the chaos. As of Friday, the head count was 5,441 students, up from 5,200 last fall. 

Runyan said some students withdrew because of challenges posed by the fires, but a couple of the evacuees registered for courses while living on campus, and the college’s fire science program in particular now boasts a waitlist.

The need for the program “is in our faces,” he said. “It’s viscerally here. We wake up, we smell it, we feel it.”

Albertson called California a “land of extremes.” He believes the fires bring lessons about climate change taught in the classroom to life.

“It’s a question of whether or not communities, and in this case higher education, can adapt fast enough to live,” he said.

DeFranco believes the role of a college leader is also having to change and adapt in response to the crises this year.  

“… Higher education leaders just are facing challenges that we’ve never had to deal with before,” he said. “Our biggest concerns used to be budgets and student success and how are enrollments. But now we’re dealing with a global pandemic and fire on our doorsteps. It’s a different world right now as a higher education leader.”

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