Cabrillo College will move back toward in-person learning in the fall. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cabrillo College is accelerating its path back to mostly in-person classes as registration numbers for the fall reveal an alarming trend — lagging even further behind than a year ago, when enrollment fell at an unprecedented rate.

Enrollment at the Aptos-based community college has been on a downward slide for more than a decade. But the slide turned into a plummet last fall, when the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the CZU Lightning Complex fire contributed to an 18% drop from the prior year. The downward trend was also in evidence statewide as community colleges bore the brunt of a pandemic-driven reshuffling in higher education.

Now, early registration numbers for the fall 2021 semester are lagging even further behind, Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein told Lookout.

With the hope that more in-person courses could help bridge the gap — and following the suit of a wave of other schools — Cabrillo is changing course.

Cabrillo announced this week it is revamping its course schedule for the fall to more than double its offering of in-person courses, which will now make up as much as 50–60% of the total. The college also announced it will require vaccinations for students and staff spending time on campus in the fall.

Cabrillo had previously planned to stay mostly remote until spring 2022. But along with the alarming enrollment trend, Wetstein said he has watched as the state reopens and a growing number of schools of all levels firm up plans for a mostly in-person fall.

“The other thing is the politics of reopening are different now,” Wetstein told Lookout, referencing the upcoming end of California’s color-coded COVID tiers on June 15. “I think the community has a right to ask and wonder, ‘Well, wait a minute — if we’re reopening California, why is Cabrillo so much online?’”

Wetstein said it was fair to question why Cabrillo didn’t make the shift sooner — or at least more explicitly draw up a “plan B” for a speedier in-person return.

According to data from the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom, 99% of K-12 districts plan to fully reopen in person in the fall. The University of California and California State University systems are also planning to return to mostly in-person learning. Community colleges are more of a patchwork across the state, running the gamut from mostly in person to mostly remote course schedules.

At Cabrillo, fall registration opened early in May. That means Cabrillo’s change of plans creates a situation where some students registered for remote classes that are now converting to in person.

“There’s a lot of angst among faculty and counselors right now about how this is impacting student schedules, and I get that,” Wetstein said. “I do think, though, that our students will understand it — and they’re going to roll with the changes, I think, because ultimately, the decision is one that’s going to improve the student experience by having more of our campus open.”

Registration is temporarily frozen for previously remote course sections that are being converted to in person or hybrid. Students in those sections can expect to be notified individually, Wetstein said, and will be able to move to another online section in many cases if that is their preference.

Students can also expect to receive information on how to comply with the new vaccine mandate, which requires full vaccination by Aug. 2 in advance of the Aug. 23 start of the fall semester.

Unlike the vaccination requirement proposed for the UC and CSU systems, Cabrillo’s requirement is not contingent on full approval of the vaccines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those claiming a religious or health exemption to opt out of vaccination will instead have to be regularly tested for COVID-19, college officials announced. The testing cadence has yet to be determined.

To meet the requirement, students can upload a picture of their vaccine card to Cabrillo College’s Student Health Services portal.

Cabrillo officials said the college plans to continue requiring use of masks while on campus, at least for the time being.

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.