For months, the classroom on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus was empty — until one recent morning when the lights flickered on and a handful of students filed in for a lecture on microbiology. They grumbled from behind their masks about needing a caffeine boost as they sat 6 feet apart and settled in for the lesson.
Their professor, also wearing a mask, stood before them, speaking loudly enough so his speech was not muffled as the students scribbled notes. It was one of the U's first in-person classes since March — when the pandemic forced all courses online — and a return to normalcy of sorts for students hungry to learn.
"I'm enjoying it so far. … I enjoy in-person classes a lot more than online," said Ian Roberts, a junior studying ecology, evolution and behavior.
"I'm sure it'll be fine, but it's a little nerve-racking," added graduate student Angie Ricono, as she prepared to crisscross the campus to collect leaf samples.
As higher education institutions nationwide grapple with the high-stakes question of how to safely resume classes, the University of Minnesota and other state colleges are bringing students back for summer courses, offering a glimpse of what the campus experience will look like this fall — and giving administrators a preview of the risks they could face.
Already, universities are learning lessons and coming to grips with an entirely new reality. Professors and students are adapting to socially distanced learning environments. And campus officials are confronting daily challenges ranging from space constraints to students testing positive for COVID-19.
"We've seen campuses slowly be able to implement those protocols that they're planning for fall … so they feel well positioned that they've now been able to practice this," said Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson.
Minnesota colleges are still on track to reopen this fall, despite a statewide increase in the number of those testing positive for COVID-19. In states where coronavirus cases have spiked in recent weeks, colleges such as the University of California, Berkeley, and Clemson University have shelved their reopening plans and opted to start the fall semester online.
At Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., cosmetology and radiology students returned to campus for summer classes earlier this month to get hands-on experience.
Sophomore cosmetology student Megan Shanahan, 19, beamed from behind her polka-dot mask as she described how it felt to be back.
"It's very exciting, even … with all these different rules," she said. "We were scared we weren't going to be able to graduate on time."
Shanahan and other cosmetology students are performing more services on mannequins than they have previously. Soon, Shanahan said, they will be allowed to invite family members and close friends as clients. Students are adapting to a more socially distant workspace and sanitizing more frequently. Most students have adjusted, she said, but some don't like wearing masks.
Shortly after reopening, a radiology student at Riverland tested positive for COVID-19, President Adenuga Atewologun said.
The class quickly pivoted to online instruction while administrators waited for the students who were exposed to be tested for the virus. Their tests came back negative, Atewologun said, and the class was set to resume on campus last week.
"We don't know who are asymptomatic and sometimes that could be problematic," he said. "It's practice for us, and we're taking notes."
Students taking classes at Rochester Community and Technical College this summer complete a health survey each day as they enter through a single building entrance.
About 120 students enrolled in law enforcement, nursing, dental hygiene and veterinary technician programs have returned to campus in small group rotations, maintaining social distancing and using personal protective equipment, a school spokesman said.
Nursing and dental hygiene students often practice on dummies, working with people only when they need to demonstrate proficiency.
"I believe we're approaching this right," President Jeffery Boyd said, adding that no students who have returned to campus have tested positive. The school expects half its students to return for in-person or hybrid instruction when the fall semester begins Aug. 24, with the other half attending online.
Across the Minnesota State colleges and universities system, the numbers are similar. Senior Vice Chancellor Ron Anderson told the board of trustees last week that 56% of fall classes at Minnesota State's 30 colleges and seven universities will be taught in-person or in a hybrid manner. In hybrid classes, groups of students can rotate between learning in person and participating live via Zoom.
"It's a way that we are able to socially distance within smaller settings and make sure that those in-person classes continue," Anderson said.
'Going to look different'
Inside a laboratory on the U's St. Paul campus, Professor Jeffrey Gralnick reflected on teaching the field microbiology class as his eight students fanned out to collect samples. With mandatory masks and social distancing, he said, the small class feels relatively safe. The only challenge he and students have faced so far is class discussion, where masks make it difficult to understand one another.
"The larger classes just logistically are going to be a bit more challenging," said Gralnick, who has opted to teach online this fall. "But I still think that the smaller classes will be able to meet in person if everybody is comfortable doing that."
As of Friday, the University of Minnesota had about 7,400 classes scheduled for the fall, a school spokeswoman said. About 64% of the classes are slated to be online, with 36% to be taught in person or hybrid.
Rachel Croson, the U's executive vice president and provost, said classrooms will operate at about a quarter of their capacity to accommodate social distancing. A classroom meant for 100 students will only fit 25, for example.
Other campus amenities such as dormitories, dining halls, libraries and student group spaces will be open only under certain conditions. But roughly two out of three U classes will not meet in person.
"This fall is going to look and feel different than past semesters," Croson said. "I think the in-person instruction is going to look different because we're going to be physically distanced, there's going to be masks. I think the distance instruction is going to look different because we've learned how to do this."
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