Amid the worst enrollment decline in the school’s 60-year history, Miami Dade College reopened its campuses Monday to thousands of students taking in-person classes, a move administrators hope will encourage students to sign up for courses and soften the revenue drop, but that some faculty have argued is unsafe.
The college started its fall term Sept. 1 with only 5 percent of its courses in person, mainly those that couldn’t be taught remotely, such as aviation, fashion and cuisine, and 20 percent of its courses remote.
The remaining 75 percent were ‘hybrid,’ meaning courses would start online, but would include some in-person components later on, if conditions allowed.
College administrators added in-person components to the hybrid courses as of Monday, citing how Miami-Dade County’s COVID positivity rate remained under 10 percent for two consecutive weeks.
“It’s been nearly four weeks and we are closer to 5% than 10%,” Juan Mendieta, a college spokesperson, said in a Monday email. “Plus, there are numerous safety measures that have been put in place.”
Elizabeth Ramsay, president of the United Faculty of Miami Dade College, the faculty union, said she would have preferred if the college had waited until the positivity rate fell to under 5 percent, and ideally stood at about 2 to 3 percent.
Miami-Dade’s positivity rate shot up to 6.87 percent, according to Tuesday’s report from the Florida Department of Health, up from 2.72 percent in Monday’s report and the highest level in about two weeks. The county’s 14-day average was 4.44 percent, according to Tuesday’s report.
Ramsey said faculty members remain committed to working with the college administration “to make the situation work” but believes state and federal officials forced the college to open earlier than it should have, threatening to take away funding.
“We teach science, but apparently our governor and our president have never taken a science class,” she said. “This is a result of pressure from Tallahassee, with a straight line to D.C. This is political; it’s not about about safety.”
On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state would fully reopen, allowing restaurants to reopen at full capacity and for bars, nightclubs and strip clubs to resume business. Public health experts have expressed concern over loosening restrictions while schools reopen.
Mendieta discarded Ramsey’s theory, saying MDC made its own decision.
“There has been no pressure. None, from any level,” he said.
What does reopening mean for faculty?
MDC’s reopening allows for a third of the students in classes scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and half of the students in Tuesday and Thursday classes, to ensure social distancing. The rest of the students will learn virtually, with teleconferencing devices installed in most rooms.
Ramsay said the rotation model puts faculty at greater risk than students.
“If you’re a professor who has three classes on a given day, then you’re going to be getting triple the exposure that any student would get,” she said.
The college and the union signed a memorandum of understanding recently that only allows faculty who are 65 or older or have underlying conditions as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, and faculty who are the primary caretakers of individuals who fall under those two categories to work from home. The agreement allows all faculty to hold office hours from their homes.
A faculty member who emailed the Herald but asked not to be named for fear of retaliation said only three students out of 44 actually came to their class on Monday.
Safety guidelines for in-person learning
The number of people increased Monday from “two to three dozen people on a campus at any given time” to at least 6,800 across the college’s eight campuses, Mendieta said.
That’s fewer than administrators expected, but Mendieta said they anticipate those numbers will rise as students adapt to the transition.
“It was a good day considering that we have been closed for six months,” Mendieta said.
The college has mandated masks and temperature checks of visitors at all entrances. Additionally, MDC purchased protective gear for maintenance personnel, put up signs asking people stay at least 6 feet apart, installed plastic barriers at service counters and will provide free flu vaccinations to faculty, staff and students.
Ramsay said the college should improve its contact tracing, including providing details about how people will find out whether they’ve been infected.
The college has asked anyone who tests positive to self-report it through the college’s website or through the My MDC mobile app.
Ramsay also said the college should open testing sites on campus. ”There is no reason in the world why they can’t have on-site testing,” she said.
Mendieta said MDC considered two rapid testing sites, but “did not find the right fit and reliability.”
At least 18,000 students have signed an online petition asking MDC to stay mainly online for the fall, and at least 230 faculty members have signed a petition raising further concerns.
Worst enrollment decline in history
The reopening came after a steep enrollment decline at the college, which Rolando Montoya, the college’s interim president, termed “highly unusual and concerning.”
At the beginning of its fall term in 2019, MDC, the third-largest college in the United States, had approximately 120,000 students. This year, that number stood at about 111,000, a loss of roughly 9,000 students.
The fewer students led to a 14% drop in revenues from credit hours.
“The revenue is generated by credits paid, not by how many people are registered,” Montoya noted.
The decrease in students and credits could represent a revenue loss of at least $16.8 million, depending on whether the college can boost its credit hours.
The budget problems are exacerbated by the state mandating that all state institutions cut their budgets by 6%, which would slash an additional $10.8 million from the college’s budget. Coupled with the enrollment decline, MDC’s budget for the school year could take a $27.6 million hit, or 8% of the college’s budget.
“In the short run, we are managing the revenue loss by obtaining support from donors, reducing the number of sections offered, activating an employment freeze and utilizing some financial reserves,” Montoya said. “This situation is not sustainable in the long run,” adding that if nothing changes, the college “would have to implement a reduction of its operations that would include a reduction of its labor force.”
Why the enrollment drop?
The college surveyed high school students who applied but never registered for fall classes, and students who took classes in spring and summer but didn’t return in the fall despite not finishing their degrees. A total of 2,426 replied: 1,762, or 73%, said they prefer face-to-face education. The rest, 664 students, or 27%, said they prefer remote learning.
Montoya said he believes the majority sided with the in-person setting because many of the students come from immigrant families and live in multi-generational homes, and may lack the technology to learn remotely.
Most are also first-generation college students (51%), so they tend to rely heavily on advisers and interactions with faculty, Montoya said.
Another smaller group of students indicated in the survey they fear taking face-to-face classes because of the risk of infection from COVID-19.
“So, our hypothesis is this is mainly caused by the pandemic,” Montoya said. “We’re very optimistic enrollment will increase dramatically once we can go back to offering more in-person classes and go back to more normal operations.”
The college is encouraging students to register to two “mini fall terms” (a 12-week one starting early October and an eight-week one starting late October).
“This year, the mini terms have become one of our best strategies,” said Montoya, noting they may help shave the revenue decline from 14 percent to 12 percent.
In a written statement provided by Mendieta via email Monday night, Lenore Rodicio, the college’s executive vice president and provost, said she walked around campus and “everyone appeared excited, even behind their masks.”
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