February 2022 Advocate: Opinion: ‘Students first’ = Clear health & safety policies


‘Students first’ should mean strong, clear health & safety policies and transparency from administration

by Rosemary Bell, History Professor, Skyline College

Skyline College has been my ‘home’ since 1990.  I knew I had hit the motherlode; I had found my dream job.  I still got butterflies walking across the campus after all those years, especially at the beginning of every new semester.  I couldn’t imagine being paid to do something I love.  I couldn’t imagine finding more engaging, intelligent, and passionate colleagues.  Teaching is a noble profession, and I was thrilled I was part of it.

I weathered many changes in the district over the years.  Five presidents, too many administrative changes to mention, a dramatically transforming student body, exciting new educational pedagogy evolving with the changing times, just to name a few.  What always kept me centered was my colleagues, my subject, and most of all the students who came through my classroom doors.

Perhaps I was naïve about our administration

Perhaps I was naïve.  Perhaps I was too complacent and kept quiet when I saw or heard the powers-that-be abuse those powers.  Perhaps I was too busy ensuring my students had all the tools and nurturing they needed to successfully navigate the complex highway of life.  Perhaps I was too trusting that those in power would do the right thing and put ‘students first’, which began to sound like a broken record.  I know I was naïve when I truly believed that our administration knew the definition of the word ‘transparency’.

The college’s mission “educating a global community of learners” also began to change.  There was little talk of how the community college is a place that offers students a place to discover not only new ideas, but also discover themselves.  I strongly believed that our colleges were for the entire community to participate in life-long learning.  Instead, our administration became data driven.  Enrollment and retention numbers; graduation and transfer numbers.   It wasn’t long before our college president at the time used their opening day message to gently chastise faculty that they weren’t doing enough “to get them in, get them through, and get them out.” I’d worked on an assembly line; educators do not work on an assembly line.  We were appalled.  Administration was obsessed with making themselves look good.  When the college president retired in spring 2019, the campus community hoped that we would have a reset when a new president came on board.

When COVID hit in March, 2020 the district went into lockdown.  Faculty scrambled to convert our face-to-face (F2F) classes to online within three days, learn Zoom and record videos.  We all struggled, but the feeling was one of camaraderie.  We were all in this together.  Looking back, faculty, staff, and the administration did a damn good job.

Board’s push for more in-person classes in Fall 2021 led to disaster

Our fall 2020 semester was remote.  Our enrollment decreased, as it did throughout the country.  Again, faculty and staff adjusted, improvised, and managed to keep putting ‘students first.’  We began spring 2021 remote, especially our general education courses.  We did not have vaccinations until early in the spring 2021 semester.   Although people began being vaccinated in spring of 2021, administration advised that we would continue to have most of our classes online in the fall.    Faculty and staff were pleased with that decision.  Administration advised that we use that semester to put in place COVID safety protocols; organizing class offerings and have a plan on how to reopen the campuses safely for spring 2022.   However, this was not to be.  In May, right before the end of spring semester 2021, the Board of Trustees, cheered on by the college administration, decided that we would offer more in-person classes in the fall 2021 semester.  Cases were dropping they said, more people were vaccinated they said, and the crusher… a famous amusement park was opening in southern California, why can’t we?

It didn’t matter that the course schedules were completed and students had begun registering for classes.  By early June, Delta struck.  Yet, the district did not change course.  We were going to offer more F2F classes, COVID be damned!  The ensuing weeks before the beginning of fall 2021 semester was an unmitigated disaster.  Leadership from above was absent or confusing, online classes that had students already enrolled were quickly converted to F2F.   This resulted in those F2F classes being cancelled because students did not feel safe to come back to campus.  These students had to find other online classes to take which meant rearranging their work and home schedules.  It also was difficult to find some required online classes still open.   Adjunct faculty found themselves without online classes to teach since they had been ‘convinced’ (bullied may be a better word) to convert.

District often disregarded faculty and staff Health and Safety reps

In their zeal to increase on-campus enrollment in fall 2021, the administration attempted to put together a COVID emergency response team.  Mixed messages, lack of transparency, and lack of clear policy re vaccinations, exemption rules, testing and quarantine policy resulted in pages and pages of incoherent rules and protocols.  Throughout the fall 2021 semester, the AFT and CSEA unions negotiated with the SMCCCD District, while Health and Safety Committee reps met weekly with administration, all to establish workable, clearly stated safety protocols before we began classes in spring 2022.  Often, faculty and staff suggestions were denied.

Requests for air purifiers have gone unanswered in some cases, or the response is usually the district mantra, ‘we are following required health protocols’, or ‘all our buildings have been passed for air filtration systems.’  That may be true.  However, would it be too much to ask that counselors who meet with many students during the day, often in windowless offices, have an extra safety measure?   The district has COVID money, and with the exorbitant salaries some administrators make, can’t we order some through Amazon?

Faculty and staff will continue to beg for proper safety protocols

Regardless of whether the San Mateo Public Health Dept. says it’s safe to end the indoor mask directive, couldn’t we as a district maintain a mask-directive indoors?  Social distancing is non-existent on a college campus.  Students mingle, they share lab space, they hug each other, offer their friends a taste of the latest Starbucks concoction, and in a split second they do not think of COVID.  We have some colleagues who are unvaccinated; shouldn’t those who are vaccinated feel assured that everyone still needs to wear a mask?  We have enough misinformation from social media.  Students as well as faculty and staff are still confused as to how best to navigate a positive COVID test.

My main concern is not the present.  We’ll muddle through.  We’ve been through worse and we’re still standing.  However, this virus in some variation will not disappear.  If we do not agree on some definitive, safe protocols for the future the district can kiss their enrollment increases goodbye.  Faculty and staff will continue to beg for proper safety protocols so we can be with our students.  Students first.  Isn’t that what education is all about?