Veronica Mihno, a culinary arts student at Santa Fe Community College, was in watch-and-wait mode this summer when it came to enrolling in fall classes.

She wanted to see the college’s plans for online and in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic before making a commitment. “I wanted to see how the whole health and class risk structure would be established in preparation for the fall,” she said.

When she learned all general education classes were going online and only programs that require hands-on practice, such as culinary arts, would include some in-person instruction, she decided to take the plunge.

Mihno is taking an on-campus baking class. The three students in the class remain socially distanced and wear gloves and masks.

While Mihno decided to continue pursuing her culinary arts degree during the pandemic, hundreds of other community college students chose not to return for the fall semester, leading to a steep — but expected — decline in enrollment.

Yash Morimoto, associate vice president for planning and institutional effectiveness, said the college saw a 28 percent decline in full- and part-time students, dropping to 3,864 students this fall from 5,337 in fall 2019.

In terms of overall credit hours, Morimoto said the college saw a 22 percent decline, to 25,413 hours compared to 32,614 last year. Students who are taking classes but aren’t seeking degrees had the steepest decrease in hours, a drop of 58 percent — 599 this fall compared to 1,420 in 2019.

Another trend Morimoto saw in enrollment was how long it took students to sign up for fall classes.

“We tracked that number on a week-by-week basis, and what we saw was that people were waiting more until the last minute,” Morimoto said. “We were afraid that might be the case, so we tried to do the fiscally prudent thing and try to budget for a 30 percent decline.”

President Becky Rowley said Santa Fe Community College is trying to meet the economic challenges part-time and nondegree students face by offering tuition help. Administrators rallied alumni and the community to contribute to the college’s Student Emergency Assistance Fund and help offset tuition costs, she said. The fund has so far awarded 56 students a total of $13,900, targeting students with the greatest need.

Todd Lovato, executive director of marketing and public relations, said he and other administrators combed through the stories in students’ applications for aid.

It was an emotional experience, at times, “to look at the stories of students who said, ‘I lost my job; my kids are home from public school, but I still want to try to go to class just to keep going,’ ” Lovato said. “Another group is saying, ‘I’m living at home with three generations of my family, but I’m still trying to make this work.’ What I’ve seen through that is these incredible efforts to stay in school.”

Rowley said the college also dedicated about half of the $1.2 million it received from the federal CARES Act to grants and other tuition aid for students.

“And it wasn’t like we were giving them $25,” Rowley said. “It was a significant amount, like $200, $300.”

While those efforts helped keep some students enrolled, the college was hindered in other areas because of COVID-19. Many of the arts and fitness classes that attract nondegree students were canceled because of difficulty complying with the state’s public health orders.

Rowley said the pool in the William C. Witter Fitness Education Center is set to reopen for lap swimming in the coming weeks, which will bring a segment of the swimming population back to campus. The college is still working on the selection of eight-week courses that begin in October, she said, but she was unsure how effective they would be in bridging the enrollment gap.

“Most students sign up for a 16-week semester,” Rowley said. “There are a lot of students who do sign up for eight-week classes for different reasons. Some of them need to start [classes] later in the year, and some intentionally take courses in that fashion.”

Morimoto said the college received a five-year, $3 million federal Title V grant to redesign how it offers education in response to the pandemic.

“That funding has helped us a lot in not just on the instruction side, but how we design and deliver it to support students,” Morimoto said.

Ultimately, the pandemic will be the arbiter of the school’s future.

Raul Garcia, a 2019 Santa Fe High School graduate, said he forged ahead this semester with a goal of obtaining his associate degree in computer science and moving on to a four-year college.

However, Garcia had a few friends who decided to skip the fall semester at Santa Fe Community College because of COVID-19 fears. He admits they are the same ones he faced when he considered an on-campus course this fall.

“The school has always been really good on safety and I always felt like it was a safe school,” Garcia said. “But this fall, I was a little nervous about going back [home] with the virus.”

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