Community college faculty push to continue providing classes to residents in care homes
Oakmont of San Jose, an assisted living facility, is one of the locations where faculty from West Valley and Mission Colleges used to teach in-person classes to seniors for free. Courtesy photo.

As the Bay Area heads into its sixth month of lockdowns, community college faculty who once taught classes to older adults in nursing homes and retirement communities are pushing for their classes to resume online.

The West Valley-Mission Community College District’s Older Adult Program (OAP) consists of four classes offered for free to seniors living in more than 30 local health facilities. Prior to the pandemic, faculty would teach in-person classes of at least 25 students, and often closer to 35, said Krystyna Lett, an OAP instructor from Mission College.

“Most of the students are very alert,” said Lett, who has close to 25 years of experience teaching OAP courses. “Sometimes people think these people in older adult facilities are too old to do anything. People still perceive us as knitting classes or something but it’s not like that. The students love that mental stimulation and now even more so because of COVID-19.”

Faculty are challenging the decision by the West Valley and Mission College administrations to suspend OAP courses for the fall semester.  After bringing their concerns the attention of the Board of Trustees at an Aug. 4 virtual meeting, faculty and union representatives’ next steps are to continue lobbying the administrations of West Valley and Mission Colleges to enter negotiations over how to transition the program online.

“During this pandemic, older adult students are isolated and suffered much more than other students,” Kate Disney, president of the West Valley-Mission Federation of Teachers, told the trustees Aug. 4. “Not because they’re sick but because they’re among a high-risk group.”

District officials say they suspended OAP classes because the senior facilities said they did not have the capacity to receive instruction in an online format.

“I’m confident that my head is not in the sand,” said Stephanie Kashima, president of West Valley College and district trustee, in response to Disney’s comment.  “I’d like to challenge the perspective that we haven’t done our due diligence and that we’re making thoughtless decisions.”

Kashima said it was ultimately the college administrations who made the decision based on information they received from the senior facilities.

Disney and other faculty said the decision was based on old data collected from facilities in March when the lockdowns were first put into place. A more recent survey of 18 facilities conducted by OAP faculty found a strong demand for classes, they said.

“It’s really about meeting the needs of the community,” Disney told San José Spotlight. “These facilities and the students are now much more desperate and willing to use the online format.”

The survey found more than 80% of facilities that responded said they would be very willing to work with colleges to provide online courses. More than 80% of respondents said they were either very familiar or somewhat familiar with Zoom.

Many of the OAP faculty have been partnered with a handful of facilities for several years, fostering connections with the students and the facilities staff. Some told the Board of Trustees they’ve had facility directors and former students reach out to them asking about the classes.  Some have been giving volunteer classes over Zoom.

“I’d like to tell our residents that we can do these Zoom classes like they’ve been talking to their families,” said Tom Connors, owner of Somerset Senior Living, to the trustees. “(Zoom) is already something they’re used to and have benefitted from.”

If the courses remain suspended, Disney estimates as many as 30 faculty members could be out of work. Transitioning the courses online requires each class get a distance education addendum, which requires revising the course outline and getting it approved by the district.

“Nobody said it’s going to be easy to bring these classes back,” Disney said. “But faculty want to bring their classes back and do the work. Older adult students are just as entitled as every other student.”

West Valley instructor Jan Masters, who has 11 years of experience teaching OAP courses, told trustees the program could be expanded to seniors outside of nursing homes or retirement centers.

“This is a population of our community that has paid taxes for many years,” Masters said. “They’ve consistently voted yes to support community colleges. I think it’s time to rejuvenate this program as it has rejuvenated its participants.”

Contact Stella Lorence at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @slorence3.

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