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Realism about COVID-19 should guide decision-making

Take some time to listen to the April 17, 2020 Board of Trustees meeting. It explains a lot about why WCC is currently the way it is. Much of the meeting focuses on the College’s current financial picture. Unfortunately, this dose of realism helped neither the College executives nor the Board of Trustees understand what’s likely to transpire in the coming months.

Bill Johnson, WCC’s Chief Financial Officer, offers three financial outlooks for the current and following two fiscal years. He bases these outlooks on assumptions that are questionable, at best. As of right now, there have been more than 3 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. Nearly one-third of cases worldwide are in the United States. More to the point, Michigan has nearly 40,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 3,400 deaths. That’s a nearly 9% death rate in this state.

Taking a realistic approach to prediction means looking at the facts. The facts – which Johnson provides early in his presentation – show a massive disenrollment by students beginning the day WCC announced that it would deliver its summer semester online. While those numbers have floated up, as of the presentation, summer enrollment was down by more than 25%.

What this should indicate is that students have a preference for how they want to take courses. If your enrollment craters the day you announce you’re offering an online-only semester, you might at least want to acknowledge that. The lack of student enthusiasm for an all-online semester should inform discussions about the overall attractiveness of online courses.

Students don’t always prefer online courses

Studies dating back five years or more show that students have a strong preference for taking classes in person – especially those they perceive as being more difficult. Students value the interaction with their peers; classroom style discussions; meaningful contact with the teacher and other elements that are unique to classroom delivery. They do not view online classes as an acceptable substitute for in-person coursework.

While some administrators will point to growth in online courses, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston showed that as many as one-third of students will enroll in classes that do not reflect their preferred delivery mode. It’s also important to remember that WCC’s administration has dropped in-person options for certain classes – giving the appearance of online enrollment growth, when really, students simply have no other options.

Community college students tend to perform worse in online courses than they do in face-to face ones. Students who know they’re likely to have trouble in online courses may simply choose to withdraw.

All of this should mean something. But to the WCC administration and the Trustees, it does not. They’re content to ignore the signs of trouble ahead.

1918 pandemic turns optimism into realism

The pandemic itself also poses some real problems. While the administration talks about a “second wave” – which is very realistic – they ignore the possibility of future outbreaks. This limits the likelihood of being able to conduct the fall semester in-person.

The 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic provides some insight. That particular pandemic lasted for more than two years. It waxed and waned, for sure, but never went away. In fact, there were four distinct “waves” of outbreaks. Each time people thought the Spanish Flu was gone in a particular area, they began to circulate. Influenza infection rates roared back, and the death toll mounted.

One critical difference between the 1918 flu and COVID-19 is immunity. Once a person contracted the flu, they had immunity to it. COVID-19 is increasingly showing signs that it isn’t that kind of virus. People can be infected multiple times. COVID-19 may be more like the common cold; it is not vaccine-preventable. That has serious implications for being able to conduct in-person classes. Even if it is vaccine-preventable, WCC cannot require people to get vaccinated.

Realism is planning for the worst

Avoiding infection isn’t the primary reason for stay-at-home orders and social distancing. In fact, experts believe that COVID-19 will eventually infect 70% or more of the US population. These avoidance measures only help control the infection rate and ration healthcare resources.

Controlling the infection rate means that large gatherings (like in-person classes) may not be possible for 12-18 months. In that time, researchers can develop and test treatments we currently lack. Surveillance testing could potentially identify periods where students could safely meet on campus. Right now, we lack the testing capacity to identify infected people, much less conduct surveillance.

The only realistic projections among the ones Johnson offered were the worst-case scenarios. The need to cut $10M-$15M from the FY 2021 budget, and work from reduced revenues for the next few years is probably more realistic than projecting growth of any kind. We’re not going to return to normal before the end of summer, or even the end of the year.

That’s just not how pandemics work.

Photo Credit: Eileen Peck