Amid safety concerns, college labs reopening to students

  • Around 200 to 300 students in welding technology, HVAC, electrical technology and automotive programs are back on campus this summer at MCC, including Shannon McClintock, pictured here. Jordyn HaimeGranite State News Collaborative

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 6/19/2020 6:17:18 PM
Modified: 6/19/2020 6:17:06 PM

Before students step into class at Manchester Community College (MCC) this summer, they must first fill out a student health screening form and disclose any symptoms that they may be experiencing, as well as if they have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Then, their temperature is taken, and so long as they are healthy, the students are given a colored bracelet – the color is different each day – that indicates they have passed the screening. If students are wearing the wrong colored bracelet or no bracelet at all, they are sent out of the classroom. The screening process is repeated daily. 

After community colleges shifted to remote learning in March because of the stay-at-home order, many students in trade, nursing and technical programs were not able to complete spring semester hands-on lab requirements. The community college system recently gained state approval to partially open their campuses to allow these students to finish their classes, but all other classes remain remote for now.

“We have two main goals. The first is keeping everyone safe,” said Jennifer Jefferson, interim vice president of academic affairs at MCC, and the second is making sure that those students who couldn’t complete their labs in the spring are able to do so this summer. 

In addition to a mask and gloves requirement, students must stay within their class cohorts, lab partners must stay within their group for the duration of the program, and different departments are designated different restrooms. Lights have been added to restroom doors to indicate when someone is inside and limit the number of people using them at one time.

Around 200 to 300 students in welding technology, HVAC, electrical technology and automotive programs are back on campus this summer at MCC.

“I mean, we’re working toward our degrees and stuff like that, yeah I guess it’s working out. Is it going to be a pain? Probably, and yes it has been. I’d much rather go back to the way things were. It was so much easier,” said Caleb McCune, a welding student at MCC. 

According to McCune, communication between the school and students has been “terrible.” He said he found out about resuming labs from his instructor a week before they started.

“In all honesty, I kind of think MCC has scammed us. If you look at the prices of classes, online classes are much cheaper than in-person classes, and we were all forced to take online classes,” he said. Labs currently being completed over the summer, however, are at no extra charge to students.

“In those cases, we were delivering the same content,” Jefferson said. “The faculty worked very hard to make sure that students were able to meet the course learning objectives. For any courses that we couldn’t meet those objectives online, that’s why we’re bringing them back to campus now,” she said. Jefferson also added that MCC was monitoring the virus situation as it developed, but kept in touch with students as reopening dates became more clear.

Anthony Hanna, a welding instructor at MCC, says wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) during classes has been a major adjustment, but that his students are “keeping their spirits up.”

“It’s definitely difficult. You’ve got glasses fogging, you’ve got issues with rubber gloves, you know, constantly switching from rubber gloves to leather gloves because you can’t weld with rubber gloves on,” Hanna said as his students finished class Tuesday. “Wearing gloves and operating machines, typically we don’t do that. That’s a big no-no, but we have to.”

“I think it’s very dangerous ... your rubber gloves kind of stick to the handles [of machines] and when you’re turning them, it twists your glove into the handle and it gets stuck,” McCune added.

Jefferson said it’s the first MCC has heard about equipment and PPE issues, and that the school would work to address the concerns.

“It’s our second week of the labs, so we’ve been following everything very closely in terms of the PPE guidelines, social distancing and health screenings, but we welcome student and faculty concerns being brought to us,” she said.

The colleges say they had been working through the spring to figure out ways to safely welcome some students back over the summer as a precursor to the busier fall semester.

“This is a good test for us to see how we’re going to do face to face instruction and still do it in a way that we believe is as safe as we can possibly provide for our students. Thus far, knock on wood, we’ve had a really good two weeks,” said Larissa Baia, president of Lakes Region Community College in Laconia. “We’ve had no major issues.”

With fewer students on campus this summer than at MCC, Lakes Region is taking many of the same precautions as all other community colleges. In addition, Baia says, students cannot leave campus midday for lunch breaks or other reasons until their class day is over. 

“Have there been complaints? Yes, there are going to be complaints one way or the other. But I think more than anything there has been appreciation that we actually did it,” Baia said.

And then there are the costs: PPE, measuring classrooms, health screenings, and plexiglass for rooms that are too small for social distancing, all cost money. Baia and Jefferson said their schools are still calculating the financial cost of the virus, but Baia added that CARES funding from the state has offset some of those costs.

“One of the biggest costs are the faculty costs,” Baia said. “These are classes that would have been finished by May, and so we are paying faculty salaries to come in and teach when those faculty members would have normally not been teaching.”

Most community colleges and four-year state colleges have announced that face-to-face learning will return for the fall semester. But since New Hampshire’s coronavirus outbreak began, Manchester has had more than double the number of COVID-19 cases than any other town or city.  As all non-lab classes remain online throughout the summer, MCC is planning on continuing most lecture or discussion-based classes remotely through the fall as well. 

Labs will be on campus, and some classes will be a hybrid of remote and face-to-face learning, Jefferson said, but many more students will be on campus in the fall compared with this summer.

“We’re still working out the details. Certainly we will be maintaining mask wearing, social distancing, that will be important as we go through the pandemic ... definitely taking student temperatures,” she said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 


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