By Michael Seymour, ATCC President

This fall, higher education as an industry, is projected to see enrollment declines as high as 20%. Much of this can be attributed to student reluctance to spend significant tuition dollars for online/remote instruction.

Despite this, according to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, the vast majority of public two-year colleges are offering classes primarily online this fall (https://www.chronicle.com/article/heres-a-list-of-colleges-plans-for-reopening-in-the-fall). This is easier done for traditional community colleges. Recently, we saw several high profile universities that began the semester on campus quickly retreating to remote instruction. North and South Dakota schools signaled their intent early to be back on campus this fall. Minnesota border colleges and colleges like ours, who compete for enrollment with North Dakota, needed to respond in-kind or risk losing enrollments to our neighboring states.

Alexandria Technical and Community College advocated at a system level for face-to-face instruction since last March. Under the guidance of the Office of Higher Education, the governor gave us that latitude in April (Executive Order 20-48) allowing second-year law enforcement students to return and graduate. All 75 law enforcement students returned with no reported cases of COVID-19.

In June, the governor (Executive Order 20‐52) allowed students in critical sector programs to return to campus to continue their studies. As a result, we were able to support law enforcement skills, nursing, diesel mechanics, welding, and manufacturing students in reaching their goals. We had students on campus in June, July and August for a total of 250 students. Our planning proved to be solid as we quickly isolated four confirmed cases (contracted off-campus) of COVID-19.

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The summer experiences helped with our planning to safely serve all program students this fall. We have assumed practices that include adherence to facial covering requirements, daily health screening of all employees and students, communication strategies to establish personal responsibility and physical distancing that limit in-person class sizes, campus activities, and events. In addition, the college has developed a de-population metric in the event transmission levels become unmanageable. We are working closely with our system office and Horizon Public Health officials.

Comparing ourselves to Minnesota technical colleges, ATCC is a bit of an outlier with nearly 80% of instruction offered totally or partially on campus. In lecture classes, if student enrollment exceeds room capacity, a handful of students may need to attend synchronously through technology – called mixed-modality classes. This can be done through another location on campus (library, campus computer labs, or personal laptops in common campus spaces) or another location of a student’s choosing.

Based on size and table configuration, each room has an occupancy number assigned to ensure six-foot distances are maintained between students and the instructor. Students may volunteer to access their mix-modality classes remotely or they may rotate between in class and remote access to these lectures. All labs are in person with reduced class sizes. Some classes are being taught face-to-face with the instructor moving between two classrooms. We have also leased the former Sears Building to provide required distancing in our nursing programs.

We (faculty and administration) believe hands-on, face-to-face instruction is how our students learn best. This is what our students want and this is what our students are paying to experience. As of Aug. 24 (the first day of class), ATCC is the only Minnesota two-year college with positive enrollment growth this fall. The Minnesota State system is down 5.9%, with two-year colleges down 7.3% on average.

We realize that advocating for in-person instruction is risky, but hands-on instruction is needed in the majority of our programs to accomplish course outcomes. We have people who are thanking us, we have people who are doubting us, and we have people who are praying for us. We will be strictly following Minnesota Department of Health guidelines and listening to all voices as we navigate the semester in hopes of having an uneventful fall. In any event, keep the prayers coming.

Michael Seymour is the president of the Alexandria Technical and Community College. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.