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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Christine Johnson: COVID-19 defined our year. We won’t let it define our decade.

By Christine Johnson Community Colleges of Spokane

If hindsight is 20/20, then a perspective looking back on this year should be remarkable.

And I mean the word in its purest definition – not just the positive connotation we assign it: worthy of attention; striking. As chapter 2020 closes, it’s the word I keep returning to.

It’s remarkable how nimble, steadfast and determined our faculty and staff acted to move our classes online last spring when Gov. Jay Inslee gave the order to shut down. It has been equally remarkable that we safely expanded in-person class offerings this past quarter and that many students stuck with us through uncertainty. And it’s understandable why some did not.

One of the things I love most about CCS, and community colleges in general is that we’re constantly focused on our mission to change lives for the better. We take this mission seriously.

But if we’re to continue to produce actions that are worthy of attention – and dare I say remarkable – there’s a mountain of work staring back at us. It’s time to start climbing. We’ve long known and recognized that economic, racial and ethnic gaps to education exist; and now know. COVID-19 threatens to widen – especially as access to technology and child care for parents working and studying from home is lacking for our most underprivileged students. That must change.

At CCS, we’re committed to an inclusive community, and nothing will change that. However, we can do better. We must do better. Then there are the millions of people who’ve lost employment and financial security.

One of the cornerstones of community colleges is fair, equal and affordable access to education. For decades, that’s meant an inalienable focus on offering a steppingstone to higher education, in addition to shorter, career-preparedness programs to get people in and out of college and into a high-paying job.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s the redefinition of the talent pipeline, need for new coalition models and integration with industry sector strategies. We are going to have to be rigorous about streamlining programs the best we can. If we pride ourselves on being the workforce entrance of the country, how too can we pride ourselves on responding to realities of a new economy, new employer needs including new education delivery and partnership models with industry. New models for a new economy.

That means being faster. That doesn’t mean cutting corners, on quality or access.

We also must work closely with the state and Legislature, because we cannot do this alone. While colleges across the state and nation are experiencing financial stress due to decreased enrollment, in Washington we’re incredibly fortunate to have a government (or state leadership) that prioritizes higher education.

In Gov. Inslee’s recently released 2021-23 proposed budget, our community/technical college system would receive an increase in funds compared to our current biennium. If passed, which Inslee believes it will, it signals a real investment in higher education.

I truly believe that CCS and other community colleges are the answer to economic recovery.

We’re facing a broken economy that’s in need of a rebuild. And while shortening programs and getting students a degree faster than ever is one solution, it also means retraining our workforce and addressing how best to serve vulnerable populations whether they are 16 or 60. The broken economy demands we fully embrace technology, work with industry to redesign apprenticeships and be clear about which jobs are not coming back.

Our access, affordability and close work with industries so that our programs are relevant and current distinguishes us from other sectors. We have a special mission and understand the urgency of our mission.

Much has been written about “the future of work.” That future is here now – and we must respond.

It likely means more online classes. Perhaps it means more working from home, a shift away from the in-person office culture that’s existed as long as the office itself. Regardless, it means remaining nimble and moving with the currents of change with an ethic of care and commitment.

We have work to do Spokane. As the region’s trusted leader in community and technical education for over 55 years, we’re up for the task.

Christine Johnson is chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane.

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