Non-stop effort allows COS to reopen two weeks after COVID-19 closure

Mike Meyer
Although the campuses are closed, students are still being taught at College of the Siskiyous via online platforms. While other schools struggled to formulate a plan to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, COS was able to reopen for distance learning within two weeks.

Wherever they were on March 17, students at the College of the Siskiyous heard their phones ping and saw the same message: the campus was closing down.

The virus that started in China was making itself felt on the idyllic campus in Weed.

What did it mean, the campus was closing down? What about the units students needed in order to move on to four-year universities? What about the certification other students needed to start a welding career, or the dream others had of becoming nurses, firefighters, law enforcement officers? Closing the campus might have seemed like the end of the world for some.

But more information flowed from staff and faculty. The campus would be closed for spring break plus a week. Instructors and staff would plan the transition to online classes. The world wouldn’t come to an end.

“We had daily meetings during that week and a half trying to work out how to meet the students’ needs,” said Char Perlas, COS’s vice president of Academic Affairs.

During the COS Board of Trustees meeting on April 7, Perlas and other officials at the college provided a picture of a college-wide effort to get classes restarted in an entirely different mode of operation.

Two immediate concerns were: if classes were to be taught over the internet, then faculty needed to learn how they were going to do it from home offices. In addition, all students needed internet access.

“Instructors began polling the students to find out their technical needs,” Perlas said. Text messages were used, but also email and social media.

“When the student data was in, we had to find the funds to buy laptops. And the IT department began searching,” Perlas said.

IT inventoried the technical resources at the campuses in Weed and Yreka. They completed this in half a day, said Darlene Melby, administrator for Business and Logistical Services.

The IT folks wanted 100 new laptops for students who didn’t have them. “There were no vendors in the U.S. who had the laptops, but the team really pulled together,” Melby said. After eight hours, IT had found the laptops and arranged for them to be delivered in two days.

As the days ticked off between the campus closure and the end of March, when classes would resume, “it took all areas of the campus working together,” Perlas said.

The president of the college, Dr. Stephen Schoonmaker, declared a condition of Standby Emergency. Doing this initiated the Incident Management Team, a mechanism for staff and faculty to perform duties when emergencies arise.

“The IMT structure allows us to deal with any kind of emergency,” Schoonmaker said. “Academic Affairs set to work migrating class material online. IT got faculty and staff equipped so they could work from home. Every department switched to emergency mode.”

In addition to this behind the scenes work to keep COS rolling, the campus had to be closed down, then disinfected. Employees had to begin working from home. A few essential staff and live-in students remained on campus, though. Social distancing became the rule of the day.

“We taped lines on the floors and used cones,” Schoonmaker said, to indicate appropriate distances to keep from others. “For those two weeks (that classes had been canceled, which coincided with Spring Break) we were planning hourly, with shifting information at least as often. The IMT and executive team were meeting daily, sometimes two or three times a day. We were developing telecommuting plans and a hundred other things. We didn’t have the pieces yet, but we kept at it. There were frequent setbacks. We would set something (new) up then discovered the nuances” that needed to be adjusted.

“We were in a tough spot,” said Teresa Richmond of human resources.

“We were doing everything we possibly could,” Perlas said.

Information updates, video links for Zoom and other remote conferencing applications, and notes from staff and instructors flowed to staff, faculty, and students. Melissa Green of Student Services said video counseling and advisement sessions were conducted with students. Staff and faculty were checking to see how students were doing, and answering any questions. “It provided a sense of community and support,” Green said.

There were still live-in students on campus, but the number had dropped – down from 160 students in early March to 22 last week. Dorm rooms and the cafeteria had to be kept virus-free.

“Distancing in food services was maintained,” Debbie Goltz told the board. Goltz is executive assistant to the president. “We taped the floors to keep students separated. And the custodians in the lodges – all they were doing was to sanitize.”

Insuring the campus stayed virus-free was and is a priority, Perlas said. “If someone has a good reason to come onto campus, the specific location they visit is re-disinfected immediately after they leave.”

For students enrolled in the academies, online classes are not a complete option. Nursing, police, fire, and paramedic classes require hands-on, face-to-face instruction and practice. The college hopes to resume face-to-face classes for these students, according to Perlas.

“We have ideas (for in-person instruction) that we think will work. We’re in the process of documenting safety protocols that would be implemented before, during and after class sessions. There would be less than 10 students allowed per class, social distancing precautions would be observed, and personal protective equipment would be worn by both students and faculty.”

A difficult few weeks of non-stop effort was clearly the theme that emerged in the reports from faculty and department heads during the April 7 meeting.

To put the COS marathon into some perspective, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday the following: “Lack of technology, divisive labor talks and a shortage of know-how have delayed learning – or more importantly teaching – during coronavirus closures, with many Bay Area schools launching instruction Monday, four weeks into (the) closures.”

Conducted over Zoom, the COS trustees meeting became a portrait of the college-wide effort. The trustees grasped the enormity of it, with each one expressing gratitude.

Jayne Turk, President of the Academic Senate, characterized the effort this way: “We had to completely change what we do. It’s been an unprecedented amount of work. Students are desperate for information, (faculty and staff) are flooded with info, which itself changes from day to day. But we are all getting it done!”