When the shutdown order came in March of 2020, “we went immediately virtual,” recalls Washtenaw Community College faculty union president Julie Kissel. When she finally returned more than a year later, “all of the old newspapers were still there. Everything was starting to look postapocalyptic.”
Though many classes remain virtual, this fall 40 percent of students are attending class in person. While it’s been “satisfying to connect again with the students who are on campus and chat with my colleagues when I can,” Kissel emails, things are “not even close” to normal yet: “There are voices in the halls and students in many classrooms, but it is on a very small scale … much like campus during the late evenings pre-Covid.”
The rest are in virtual classes. WCC has offered online classes since 2013, and currently has more than 100. Kissel says many faculty “are finding that there are many aspects of their jobs, from teaching to advising, that can be done effectively in a virtual format … We’ve discovered some really great things for connecting with certain populations of our students.”
Instead of office hours, Kissel is meeting students at ‘the campus writing center. “Many others use their classrooms before or after class to have meetings,” she writes. “The College is working to create and identify more of these spaces as the last of faculty and staff working remotely will return to campus in January.” At that point, the administration and the union have agreed, those faculty members still working remotely will be back at least three days a week.
Nationally, community college enrollment is down 14 percent since the start of the pandemic. By comparison, WCC’s less than 5 percent decline is a win. And though the school’s revenue fell $2.6 million last year, media relations director Fran LeFort emails, “lower operating expenses resulting from remote operations the past year helped to offset the reduction.” That allowed the school to freeze tuition for the fourth straight year.
“We have a solid reputation, and we’re able to be creative with our delivery methods as well,” Kissel says. “So we’ve been able to be stable and even grow in some areas of our general education class, especially sciences and math courses … they’re gangbusters.”
WCC has lost some employees to retirements and program closures–the once-successful culinary arts program is being phased out, and the child care center has closed–but new hiring has kept the faculty ranks filled. Since September, the college has hired approximately fifty full- and part-time new professional faculty.
A big part of the reason for the school’s financial stability is its countywide property tax millage, which provides almost half the school’s budget. “Other community colleges don’t have anything like what we have in terms of the millage funding,” says Kissel. “People are very, very jealous of that millage.”
After years of acrimonious disputes between the union and the administration, Kissel reports that the union is “satisfied” with the administration’s handling of the pandemic. “The relationships that we have been able to establish [are positive] so that we can work through the issues at hand.
“That doesn’t mean we agree on everything, and sometimes, on some issues, it doesn’t even seem like we agree on anything. [But] we continue to have the conversations and try to get to an end result that will be good for as many people as possible.”