As students rush back to campuses across the nation, the return to Santa Monica College this fall will be more of a drip than a flood.

Only around 4,000 of the college’s 25,000 students will be taking classes in-person, and in order to do so they must prove vaccination status or a valid health or religious exception. Those who have a deferral or exemption must test for Covid-19 at least once a week and provide evidence of negative results.

While some general lecture courses will take place on campus, the majority of in-person offerings are classes that benefit most from hands-on learning such as science labs, PE and the arts. Athletic teams will practice and compete in-person, but all arts and music performances will be virtual.

In total, in-person classes will constitute around 15 percent of courses on offer. This is much lower than the 50 percent in-person offerings at community colleges such as Pasadena City College and Cerritos College. According to SMC Vice President of Academic Affairs Bradley Lane, this limited in-person approach was taken in light of the school’s priority to maximize safety, its strong record of teaching online courses and students’ desires for online opportunities.

“I’m cautiously optimistic for the fall as we’re coming back to campus with a minimal number of on ground classes,” said Lane. “We were being really conservative when we were doing our planning. I think that’s paid off because the Delta variant has made us pivot a lot of what we were thinking.”

The minority of students who do return to campus can expect stringent safety measures including daily symptom screenings, mandatory masking, appointment-only access to certain buildings and sanitization of desk areas after each class.

“Our goal here has always been to create a safety culture, because that means everybody is participating and involved in it,” said Daniel Philips, director of safety and risk management. “Safety just becomes part of what you do.”

Philips gave seatbelt wearing as an example of a developed safety culture; people initially found the practice uncomfortable but are now so adjusted that the absence of a seatbelt generates discomfort. To create a Covid-19 safety culture, all staff have undergone a five hour training and ample signage and daily safety requirements should serve as ongoing reinforcements.

According to Lane, SMC plans to roughly double in-person offerings in the spring semester and move close to a new normal next summer. Lane also expects increased online opportunities to become a permanent feature of SMC.

“One of the things that we know about our students is that their lives are full and complex,” said Lane. “The average community college student is probably a working adult and trying to balance jobs and often families, alongside finishing their higher education, so the flexibility that online learning offers is really valuable.”

SMC was offering roughly 20 percent of its classes online prior to the pandemic and has honed in on its model over the past academic year, which includes asynchronous courses, synchronous virtual classes and a hybrid option.

Of the 1,380 students who responded to an SMC survey, 56 percent said they would not be interested in taking online classes this fall. Additionally, 88.3 percent said that SMC had provided adequate support and resources during the pandemic.

Some of these resources include a drive-through food pantry and a highly utilized 24-7 emotional support hotline. These too will become permanent parts of the college, with the drive through set to be converted into a physical food pantry space in September.

“That (the food pantry) was really a result of the learning we had around students’ basic needs,” said Lane. “This kind of focus on equity and access in service to students’ basic needs is something that the college is going to continue focusing on.”

Clara@smdp.com