This editorial was published by the Union-Bulletin of Walla Walla.

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Fall enrollment at Walla Walla Community College is expected to be down 24 percent to 30 percent compared to the same time last year.

That’s a shocking statistic.

Yet, the college is not in long-term trouble. As Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers said when his team got off to a rotten start in 2014, “Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packer-land: R-E-L-A-X. Relax. We’re going to be OK.”

WWCC is going to be OK, and so is every other community college in Washington state. The dramatic downturn in enrollment at two-year colleges is mostly related to COVID-19.

Students aren’t enrolling this quarter due to “the need to oversee the education of K-12 students, sharing limited technology with others in a household, employment and other financial uncertainty, and other factors,” said WWCC President Chad Hickox.

Beyond that, the need for social distancing with COVID-19 has forced WWCC to now have about 70 percent of its classes online. Last fall, pre-coronavirus, just 17 percent of its classes were online.

While distance and online learning has merit, it is not a full substitute for in-class, face-to-face learning.

It seems that many students are making that clear with their decision to postpone college until the more traditional learning approach has returned.

Yet, school will take place online and in-person for some courses, which means WWCC has work to do — but with less revenue than expected.

It’s going to be a challenge. Tough decisions will have to be made. Instructors and their students will have to be adaptable.

The bottom line, however, WWCC will serve its students and the community.

“Our community is coming together in this time of need,” Hickox said. “We have seen a tremendous outpouring of support for scholarships for students. We have offered over 150 and counting new scholarships this summer and fall, supported by the generous donations of community members.”

Federal COVID-19 relief funds are also in play at WWCC. Hickox said students can use the funds for this such as buying computers, internet access, living expenses and transportation. This money likely makes it possible for many to continue their education in the midst of the pandemic.

In addition, the state of Washington’s most recent revenue (tax collection) forecast showed a strong uptick in the economy, which means the cuts to higher education won’t be as dramatic as anticipated.

The unexpected, but welcome, tax revenue buys time for all of state government — including community colleges.

Yes, it’s going to be a challenging academic year for WWCC, like all state higher education institutions. When the pandemic subsides — and it will — WWCC will once again be thriving and fully meeting the needs of its students and the community.

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