The fall semester landscape at Hancock College has changed again after the board of trustees recently reinstated the option for faculty to choose how they offer their classes, and added medical and belief-based exemptions to an existing campus vaccine mandate.

A previous memorandum of understanding allowing faculty to hold their fall classes in person, online or in a hybrid model was revoked in June as officials lifted the college's state of emergency, pushing ahead with 75% of classes taught exclusively in-person and 25% available in some kind of virtual format by the beginning of the semester on Aug. 16.

However, as the COVID-19 delta variant causes another surge in cases and more faculty and staff express concerns about being on campus — as well as the possibility of students falling behind in classes if they were to get sick— the college board decided during a special meeting Aug. 31 to once again allow for more options.

According to COVID-19 data shared by the college, 24 student cases and two staff cases were confirmed in the first two weeks of the fall semester.

Faculty now can submit their plans for an online or hybrid class modality to their department deans if they wish, Milbourne said.

“The District and the Faculty Association reached an agreement to support alternative modalities of instruction that will assist with managing course modality during the pandemic. We are excited and hopeful that this flexibility in our offerings will benefit our faculty and students through June of 2022,” said Dr. Robert Curry, vice president of academic affairs.  

Several students and faculty members pleaded with the board to expand class options for students, arguing that fully in-person instruction wasn't working for everyone.

Student Joaquin Esparza said Aug. 31 he has temporarily withdrawn from his photography certification program due to the lack of online options, as he fears coming to campus when COVID-19 cases are increasing throughout the community.

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"I am two classes away from completing my certificate program, and both could be taught online. I am not comfortable going to classes with COVID cases and the delta variant. I am positive there are others like me who would like to continue their education to reach their goals," Esparza said. "Unfortunately, I have withdrawn from school in hopes that modifications will be made."

Recognizing that many students do not have a suitable environment at home in which to take classes, the board decided that the classrooms will remain open to students, even if instructors change the modality to an online or hybrid format. 

Board members found that discussions around class modalities were inextricably linked to vaccine mandates, as they also considered whether to allow medical, religious and personal belief-based exemptions to be applied to the vaccine requirements set to take effect Oct. 1. 

Hancock officials have not confirmed the percentage of students and faculty that are vaccinated, but CEO and President Kevin Walthers said around 4,100 students thus far have taken advantage of an incentive program offering $250 gift cards to those who submit proof of full inoculation. 

The board ultimately decided to allow for exemptions based on valid medical concerns and "strongly held personal beliefs" in a 3-2 vote. Under the policy, all faculty and students claiming one of these two exemptions will be required to undergo regular COVID-19 testing, which will be provided on-site, as a condition of entering the campus.

It is unclear at this point whether exemption claims based on personal beliefs will be vetted in any way by the college. Board members expressed concerns about how this could be done without opening the college up to accusations of discrimination.

"Medical exemption is great, but as far as religious and personally held [beliefs], I’m not too confident in that, because none of us want to take the burden of deciding which are religious and personal beliefs," said trustee Alejandra Enciso Medina.

Logistical details surrounding how often unvaccinated students will need to be tested are still being sorted out, according to Milbourne. At this point, the vaccine policy only requires such individuals to be tested three days prior to being on campus. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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