Kevin Sheby was in his second year in the electrical program at Long Beach City College when the coronavirus pandemic forced a major cutback in campus lab courses.

With the college’s new social distancing rules, Sheby said students were no longer allowed to have lab partners for a tough technical course and lab hours were cut from weekly to every other week to reduce the amount of time students spent on campus.

“It’s hard because it’s a lot of work and we’re expected to do the same amount of work in half the time without a lab partner,” he said. “I just didn’t see myself getting it done.”

Faced with a tough choice, Sheby, a 33-year-old Long Beach resident who hopes to become a journeyman electrician, said he dropped out this fall when the work became too demanding with his full-time job as a construction worker.

He hopes to re-enroll next year.

Sheby is one of many community college students who have opted out of school for at least the fall semester as a result fo the coronavirus pandemic.

College enrollment nationwide has dropped this fall, and community colleges have been hit the hardest, leading to concerns about the future impact for low-income students and students of color, especially in California, which has the country’s largest two-year college system.

A study released last month by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that overall undergraduate enrollment was down 2.5% for the fall 2020 semester compared to last year. For two-year colleges, enrollment was down 7.5%.

In a Board of Governors meeting last month, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said he’s concerned by the trend and anticipates a 5% to 7% decrease in enrollment statewide.

At Long Beach City College, enrollment is down 5% this fall, with 23,551 students compared to 24,638 last year.

The number of low-income students has dropped by 10%, while the number of Hispanic students, which make up the college’s largest population, has dropped 8%. Other races, including White, Black and Asian have only seen slight changes.

The college has also seen major hits to some departments, as courses have moved from in-class to virtual. Culinary Arts is down 23%, Kinesiology is down 20% and Performing Arts enrollment has dropped 16%.

LBCC spokesman Joshua Castellanos said the college has not yet cut back on course offerings and is hoping more students will return in the spring.

“It’s been a difficult year with a lot of unknowns, but we’re hoping for the best moving forward,” he said.

Many of of the state’s four-year universities, however, remain in high demand.

Cal State Long Beach, which is the Cal State University system’s most in-demand campus, saw a jump in enrollment this fall with 39,355 students, compared to 38,075 last year.

Castellanos said there are many reasons community colleges are seeing declines. The colleges are a stepping stones for low-income students, but in the pandemic, many can’t afford the technology required for virtual courses.

About 10% of students at LBCC are homeless, Castellanos noted.

“A lot of them don’t have access to the technology so we’ve been loaning out hotspots and computers,” he said.

The college has also been getting creative in loaning out sewing machines, science kits, keyboards for music classes and art supplies for students learning from home.

For now, the college is watching the numbers and working on case management for students at risk of dropping out.

“It’s really important for us to continue to reach out to these students,” Castellanos said. “Because this is a year like we’ve never seen.”