Minnesota colleges have closed the book on the strangest fall semester in recent memory, one in which students and professors alike spent much of their time perched behind a computer screen and isolated from their peers.

Months of online classes and social distancing took a toll on many students and faculty, who reported struggling with loneliness, stress and burnout. But the various campus life restrictions that institutions put in place appear to have paid off, as most Minnesota colleges managed to avoid large outbreaks of COVID-19. As they look toward the spring, college leaders say they will likely continue to operate under strict campus safety measures until vaccines become widely available.

"I think students have found that it's not a lot of fun, and there's a lot of fatigue for them," said Minnesota State University, Mankato President Richard Davenport.

The traditional rituals of college life — from student group gatherings to homecoming and rush week for fraternities and sororities — were held virtually this fall. Students at many colleges spent little time in the classroom, as most courses were taught online or in a hybrid format.

About 1 in 3 community college students in Minnesota reported they were struggling or "in a bad place" this fall, according to a survey of more than 8,000 students conducted from Nov. 24 through Dec. 8 by LeadMN, the statewide community college student association. Two-thirds of students said they were concerned about their mental health, about 80% were afraid of catching COVID-19 and nearly 40% worried about affording food and housing.

Students also reported struggling with online learning. "I feel disinterested in learning because I am sick of watching everything on the computer screen. I used to be an A/B student but have now become a C student," a student from Minnesota West Community and Technical College wrote.

Added North Hennepin Community College student and LeadMN President Priscilla Mayowa: "I don't feel like I am getting an education. … You are practically teaching yourself."

Other students said the semester went better than expected, though they admit to low expectations.

University of Minnesota freshman Robbie Wichterman was not able to connect with his classmates during online learning, but he did befriend students who lived in his dormitory, Middlebrook Hall. When the weather was warm, they got together in parks and ate at Dinkytown restaurants. Toward the end of the semester, they gathered in the dormitory's common spaces and dining halls.

"I did meet some really awesome people. There was definitely ways to keep everyone safe," he said.

U freshman Ethan Myos, who is studying computer science, said his online classes were easy to keep up with and his professors were responsive to students. Still, he said, learning in person "would have felt more like school."

Distance learning has not been easy for professors, either. About 1 in 5 faculty members at the U reported high levels of burnout since the start of the pandemic, according to a research study surveying more than 1,000 faculty. Colleen Flaherty Manchester, a professor in the U's Carlson School of Management who led the study, said she found professors often spent less time on their research because of increased teaching demands.

"I think there's so much extra work that faculty are having to do to engage with their students," Manchester said. "There could be not only immediate effects on how faculty are using their time, but longer-term effects on career success if research is what's being pushed out the door."

Professors and students should not expect college life to look much different when the spring semester begins in January.

State epidemiologist Cynthia Kenyon said the Health Department's guidance for colleges will stay more or less the same, though officials may encourage schools to offer more testing now that the state's capacity has increased.

"The guidance that we do have does seem to be working," Kenyon said.

The U reported about 1,900 positive cases among students, staff and faculty at its Twin Cities campus between Aug. 1 and Dec. 12, according to state Health Department data. Some 52,000 students were enrolled at the Twin Cities campus this fall.

Minnesota State's 37 colleges and universities cumulatively reported about 4,700 positive COVID-19 cases among students and employees through Dec. 16. The system serves more than 300,000 students.

U President Joan Gabel said there were no known cases of in-class transmission at the Twin Cities campus. Davenport, president of Minnesota State Mankato, noted just one student fell seriously ill with the virus and had to be airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Both Gabel and Davenport say they will finalize their colleges' spring semester plans over winter break.

Other colleges have already announced their plans.

Carleton College in Northfield will begin its winter term Jan. 4, with the first two weeks of classes to be taught online. Students will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival to campus and are expected to lay low until in-person classes resume. Carleton plans to double its testing of asymptomatic students, staff and faculty to 600 individuals per week. The school also will update its ventilation systems.

Students at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter will return for a January term that will feature a mix of online, in-person and hybrid classes. The private college's spring semester will start Feb. 1. Most spring courses will be taught online for the first two weeks. Classes will be taught online, in-person or hybrid for the remainder of the semester, as indicated by the instructor.

St. Cloud State University and the University of St. Thomas will also carry over their plans from the fall, holding spring classes in online, in-person and hybrid formats and maintaining masking and social distancing requirements.

Mike Dean, executive director of LeadMN, said colleges must work hard this spring to make sure students receive the academic and mental health support they need. Students who struggled this fall could be in an even worse position in the spring if schools don't make efforts to support them, he said.

"Meeting students where they're at is kind of a key part of this," Dean said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234