Most students at Alexandria Technical and Community College resumed their studies Monday following a three-week break, but did so online due to changes necessitated by the spread of coronavirus.

The college, along with the other 36 colleges and universities that make up the Minnesota State system, had also made adjustments in advance of holding face-to-face classes with students in up to a dozen programs where that is a key part of the curriculum.

However, ATCC President Michael Seymour said he was notified Sunday evening that the state’s Executive Branch decided all in-person instruction should be suspended for the next two weeks.

That coincides with the duration of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order.

The change came so late that some students who live some distance from the Alexandria campus did not get the word in time before making the drive, Seymour said.

Just a few days earlier, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra had said that Walz had classified educational services as essential, making the Minnesota State schools exempt from the governor’s order.

Customized training courses were also canceled on campus, which had already been closed to the public. Students can still access computer labs and Jennie’s Cupboard for non-perishable food. But all campus dining is closed until further notice.

Other campus services are still available, primarily by phone and email.

Graduation ceremonies for approximately 700 graduates, set for May 13 at the Runestone Community Center, will not be held then. Seymour said the college is considering its options, which could include postponing it until later this summer or a virtual ceremony.

In addition, the college’s accounting program is shutting down the free tax return preparation service for this year. Accounting instructor Mark Meuwissen said there is not a safe and effective manner to continue the service.

Changing directions

While many universities had transferred all students online, that alternative isn’t as practical for technical colleges that require hands-on training in many areas. So when Minnesota State suspended classes for two weeks following a one-week spring break, ATCC and other system schools used that time to come up with novel ways to teach its students beyond a classroom setting.

“Overall it went really well. Faculty are here to serve students and they understand the task in front of them,” said Gregg Raisanen, vice president of academic and student affairs, who headed up the effort. He said the school and its faculty were attempting to accommodate students as best they could.

“People have been understanding and supportive in the process. But there’s always a little bit of anxiety because we’re in uncharted territory.”

Online students accounted for about 20% of the college’s student base, but the rest were part of a lecture or lab format. During the two-week break for students, faculty met by each academic division due to the unique differences in the types of instruction they deliver, to devise another method, Raisanen said.

All classes traditionally delivered in a lecture format would continue in another manner, he said. That meant 85% to 90% of instruction will be delivered online or through Zoom video conferencing or another format.

Eric Karlstad, director of student success and advising at ATCC, holds a Zoom video chat while reviewing a student schedule during a student advising session. Most of the college's classes moved online beginning Monday. (ATCC / Contributed)
Eric Karlstad, director of student success and advising at ATCC, holds a Zoom video chat while reviewing a student schedule during a student advising session. Most of the college's classes moved online beginning Monday. (ATCC / Contributed)

However, a solution wasn’t so easy for the remaining 10% or so that still needed hands-on instruction.

“Because of our career tech offerings, we can’t get students over the finish line without having some limited face-to-face opportunities,” Seymour said.

That group of students includes second-year law enforcement, first and second year machine tool, welding, carpentry, some nursing and truck driving.

With guidance from the Minnesota State system and the state Department of Health, the college devised plans for limited face-to-face classes for those students. Plans included adjusting schedules and doubling the number of sections in a class, reducing groups of students to 10 or fewer on campus every other day, with an online component the other day. That way the number of students on campus at any one time would be limited, and social distancing practices would be used.

ATCC also asked students entering campus to complete a questionnaire and self-report their behaviors and draw awareness to their personal responsibility, Seymour said. Also, the college was attempting to make provisions for any student who did not feel safe coming to campus.

“We’re doing everything we know to deliver the balance of the semester to those who cannot be served remotely,” Seymour said. That included adding to the cleaning staff, and providing gloves to students in labs.

Among the steps taken to make the Alexandria Technical and Community College campus safe were stepped-up cleaning measures. (ATCC / Contributed)
Among the steps taken to make the Alexandria Technical and Community College campus safe were stepped-up cleaning measures. (ATCC / Contributed)

“The college as a whole has really rallied and come together. It’s one of those things ATCC can be proud of,” Seymour said. About 85% of the school’s workforce has made the transition to working from home.

“We had a really orderly telework process. People quickly figured out what they could do from home, and collaboratively rotate to cover offices.” He said that after hours one night they even held a social happy hour using technology.

In short, Seymour said everyone did what was possible to avoid cutting short a student’s education, particularly if they had invested nearly two years only to be left just a few weeks shy of graduation and not being able to take that job that awaits them this spring.

Now with the fate of those in-person classes in limbo, ATCC leaders will be meeting again to come up with solutions beyond those that were devised during that two-week break (Raisanen called them Plans A-E).

“We’ll be building contingency plans, all situational depending on the classes,” he said. “Plans G and H.”

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