When Santa Clara County announced its shelter-in-place order back in March, the West Valley-Mission Community College District decided to suspend classes for elderly adults.
But since the district still planned on paying teachers for the remainder of the term, 73-year-old instructor Jan Masters was given permission to conduct an experiment: could she successfully move her classes with adults ages 55 and older to an online-only format?
The answer, she says, was yes.
For the last 11 years, Masters has taught art, music and history classes for the college at local independent living facilities, as well as the Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos.
When the pandemic started, she says a majority of her students—many of whom are in their 80s and 90s—contacted her about how they could continue their classes.
“We used to have an evaluation process in which the students were asked questions like why do you take these classes,” Masters says of the program. “The answers [were] consistently like it enhances my wellbeing, it gives me a reason to get up in the morning [and] it gives me a chance to make friends.”
That positive feedback, she adds, continued when she moved her class online.
But in a June 16 email obtained by San Jose Inside, West Valley Vice Provost Chris Dyer told faculty that older adult classes would be canceled for the fall.
“We surveyed the activity directors of the centers to assess the feasibility of offering classes in a distance education format,” Dyer wrote. “Numerous challenges and concerns were indicated on gathering residents in groups, technology, and the ability for staff to obtain records that facilitate application and registration.”
Dyer also explained that the program was not approved for distance learning by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office—a requirement for them to continue.
Masters calls the decision “short-sighted,” saying it’s a disservice to one of the most vulnerable populations in the pandemic
“The people that live in the facilities where I teach have access to their computers in their own apartment,” she says. “They don’t need an activity director or some helper to make it happen for them, they just need me to send a link.”
Many of her colleagues and students agree.
On Tuesday evening, concerned community members flooded the West Valley-Mission Community College Board of Trustees meeting to advocate for moving the classes for elderly adults online. Margaret and Ken Schieck told the trustees that they have been taking classes through the program for the last decade.
“The older adult program—such as the art history and music appreciation classes which can easily be taught via distance learning—are vital to older adults’ mental wellbeing,” Margaret Schieck said in the virtual board meeting. “In this time of the pandemic, it is critically important for seniors to have a means of social interaction to combat the effects of loneliness and depression. And even via Zoom, which I admit is second best, it’s still better than not having any programs at all.”
Kate Disney, West Valley-Mission Federation of Teachers president, says administrators are using the pandemic as an excuse not to offer services and asked them to “take their heads out of the sand and do the work of solving problems that are now solvable.”
The union president says instructors have also tried to meet with district leaders multiple times, to no avail. “Understand that a failure to offer these classes increases the cost of the lockdown on older adult students as well as the district,” she says. “We all need to change our mindset. These older adult students are asking that these courses be brought back. These students are students and as such, they are entitled to district services.”
But West Valley College President Stephanie Kashima tells Disney that her assertions “couldn’t be further from the truth” and that the decision was made using input from directors of independent living facilities.
“The response we got back was that they did not feel that they had the adequate resources,” Kashima says. “[They thought] that the seniors and older adults in their facilities [didn’t have] the ability to independently, without a full-time assistant, with them engage in classes and manage technology that challenges much younger people.”
When it came for his time to speak, Tom Connors—who owns Somerset Senior Living in Willow Glen—said many of the octogenarian residents are comfortable using technology.
“We’ve been locked down since February, but we made ways around it to make it successful so that the people can still interface with their family members and friends,” he says. “Whether they’re talking to a pane of glass on the outside of the building or whether they’re using Facetime ... It’s really something that they already are used to and I think that they’re going to benefit from.”
Board of Trustees President Susan Fish tells San Jose Inside that she’d like to see the union and the Older Adult Program faculty sit down and talk with district administrators, rather than bring it up at a public meeting as a last resort.
“I know that West Valley would very much like to be able to serve these older adults because we have for years,” she says. “I think it’s been a good program. I think the fact of Covid and all of the issues regarding long-term care facilities ... those have thrown a monkey wrench into every plan we’ve had.”