DULUTH – Jasmine Lepisto didn't want to wait any longer to start her respiratory therapy education.

"I started in a pandemic; I'll be perfectly prepared," said the first-year student at Lake Superior College. "Wearing masks and social distance is already life; I work in health care with elderly people. I'm comfortable here."

Now in its second week of classes, Lake Superior College was one of the first campuses in the state to resume in-person learning. With many programs requiring hands-on training — be it aircraft maintenance, carpentry or health care — the college's ability to open largely as normal was crucial to getting or keeping students on track.

Schedule shifts and increased online learning have meant only about 25% of students are on campus at any given time. As elsewhere, masks and social distancing are mandatory, and classrooms have been redesigned with COVID-19 in mind.

As U campuses start to welcome students into dorms and classrooms next week, Lake Superior College is providing an important — although limited — test for how well those measures will work to keep students, staff and faculty safe. The school has no on-campus housing or large student dining halls, one of the trickiest hurdles for colleges and universities dealing with the pandemic.

"It's like everything has changed but nothing has changed," said Daniel Fanning, vice president of institutional advancement and external relations at the college. "What we're hearing the most is, 'We're just glad you are open.' "

The hallways at the hilltop campus overlooking the harbor were mostly quiet Wednesday as staggered class times kept students separated. That quiet feeling on campus is intentional. Some class offerings were eliminated while new sections were added to spread out students in popular courses.

"So are we saying things four times? Yes," said microbiology instructor Terrence Wilcox. "But again to maintain their learning, to come here and feel safe and still get instruction as needed is more important to us."

Wilcox, an instructor for 10 years at the college, said he sees students taking the pandemic seriously, and those who are on campus want to continue to be on campus.

"I think they understand the severity of it and what we're trying to do," he said. "They have a choice — if this is what it takes to be in class, they want to be in class."

Enrollment is expected to be down nearly 10% this year, Fanning said, though he could not say what financial impact that will have. Unofficial estimates count 3,521 full-time, degree-seeking students this fall compared to 3,906 last year.

That's much better than the nearly 45% drop Lake Superior College was looking at earlier this year, when college applications dried up due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic. Final enrollment numbers through Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, of which Lake Superior College is a part, are expected later this month.

About 42% of students are taking classes online only, with the rest entirely on campus or a mix between the two.

Some programs, especially health care, have seen an increase in an enrollment as students "dive into the fire," Fanning said.

"Everyone that is on campus, they're here with a purpose," said Bryan Stark, director of clinical education for the respiratory therapy program. "I'm trying to be aware of maintaining outcomes for the program and the profession."

Respiratory students like Lepisto need 800 clinical hours before they can join the workforce, making online-only learning a nonstarter.

"Of course being in a global pandemic you have so much you need to do, and they really incorporate that," said the 24-year-old from Virginia, Minn. "I was really nervous about it, but respiratory care is something that everybody needs."

Programs that require lab or shop hours were allowed to bring students back onto campus this summer to finish what they started in the spring, giving the school a head-start on what needed to happen to prevent outbreaks.

"It feels good to be back in class," said Josh Ronkainen, now in his second year of the Auto Services Technology program.

The 24-year-old said he's confident the school can continue offering in-person classes throughout the semester, though what happens over Thanksgiving break could change that outlook.

As the COVID-19 self-assessment signs around campus make clear, the health of each member of the campus is ultimately in their own hands.

"I think students will keep that in the forefront," Wilcox said, "and adapt to the new normal."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496