San Mateo County Community College District officials are ramping up plans to reopen campuses, accelerating the return of students and teachers in the coming fall semester.

The district Board of Trustees discussed reopening plans during a meeting Wednesday, June 9, and agreed to allow between 30% and 50% of the district’s students back to campus at the start of next year.

Though terms of the agreement are still under development, the estimated reopening date is months sooner than an initial plan for classes to be hosted mostly online until the spring semester.

The direction is aligned with previous instruction from trustees who last month urged administrators to speed up the reopening planning, noting the college district is the only local school system not planning a full fall return.

While campuses are not entirely shuttered, capacity during the pandemic floated near 5% and the previous reopening plan called for bringing back about 15% students in the fall semester.

The accelerated plan would at least double the amount of students occupying campuses, and officials would take down the gate checkpoints monitoring who is allowed on the school sites. As the semester evolves, more students would be allowed to return with an eye on starting the spring semester back at full capacity.

While trustees favored the proposal, it was unpopular among some district teachers who suggested that the health hazard posed by the pandemic remains significant — especially as the state still develops mask and vaccination standards.

What’s more, representatives from the teachers’ union said they have been left out of the planning process and would like to have a more active role in developing operation regulations.

To address some of those concerns, Chancellor Michael Claire proposed a vaccination mandate for teachers and students who plan to visit campus regularly. The proposal is in alignment with a recent survey showing most students would feel safest if they knew vaccination was required to attend in-person classes.

While administrators proposed the immunization requirement, Claire recognized that it would be difficult to enforce because a certain amount of the school community will elect to not get the shot.

“We anticipate there will be those who refuse it, and we will have to deal with that accordingly,” he said.

For his part, Trustee Maurice Goodman raised reservations regarding equitable access to education with the vaccine requirement, and questioned how the district should accommodate those who choose not to get immunized.

“Either you are allowed to be on campus like everyone else or you are excluded … there is some concern around that,” he said.

While he acknowledged that unvaccinated students will have the option to take classes online, he suggested that administrators have more work to do regarding offering additional alternatives.

He also said there needs to be more clarity regarding the district’s plan for authorizing whether those on campus are vaccinated, while also working through details on the mask mandate.

School officials added the reopening proposal is further complicated because some class schedules are set, and that bumping up the return date could pose challenges to educators who were planning to work remotely for the coming semester.

Countering that perspective, Goodman noted that the shift to online was accommodated with an understanding that it could be a smooth transition back into the classroom.

He expressed confusion over the position from educators and administrators that it is now considered challenging to go back to in-person learning, because it had previously been seen as easy to transition from online classes to in person. Claire conceded that there may have been inconsistent messaging on the issue.

But ultimately, Claire said officials are facing a considerable challenge managing the variety of complicating factors.

“This is not an easy decision to make,” he said.

austin@smdailyjournal.com

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