VCC on track to reopen in fall

by Tom Coombe
A virtual ghost town for nearly three months, Vermilion Community College will come back to life later this summer.
The 2020-21 school year is set to begin on time in late-August, with classes being held in-person and students residing in on-campus housing.
School leaders made that official this week with a letter to incoming students indicating a return to “business as usual” - with some new safety enhancements - amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our current plan is to be open,” provost Shawn Bina said Wednesday. “The governor can change it on us if something happens further with the pandemic, but we do plan to be open while following CDC and Department of Health guidelines.”
Student housing will operate at reduced capacity because of the pandemic, and buffets will go by the wayside in the cafeteria in favor of entirely plated meals.
The school will also encourage six-foot social distancing throughout the campus, and masks will be encouraged but not required.
Some classes may have in-person attendance restrictions because of room size, according to Bina.
Vermilion joins the rest of the 30-plus schools in the Minnesota State College and University system in opening for business in the fall, although each individual campus has some autonomy in determining course delivery and service offerings.
“System-wide we will be open,” said Bina. “The chancellor has decreed there will be classes. The freedom is in how you go about doing those. We could have said we are just going to do classes online and that we’re not going to open the dorms, but as far as I know all residential campuses are working with plans to welcome students.”
An online-only plan would be increasingly difficult at Vermilion, not only because of student sentiment but because of the school’s unique, hands-on degree offerings.
“Online is very difficult for us,” said Bina. “If you’re a straight liberal arts college, even if it’s not optimal it’s feasible.”
It’s all but impractical at VCC, however, with 70 percent of the school’s students enrolling in degree programs that require more experiential learning.
“It’s one thing to do it at the end of a semester like we did beginning in March where we were just finishing up,” said Bina. “It’s very difficult to start out incorporating all of the requirements, especially for five programs that carry special accreditations.”
Those programs, which include fisheries and wildlife and the veterinary technician curriculum, require face-to-face interaction and many involve laboratory sessions or learning in Ely’s natural surroundings.
Bina said that the school has heard “anecdotally” from students that they want to return to campus and that VCC is “trying to balance what we know they want” with initiatives to ensure safety for students and staff.
That includes a change in how VCC classes operate in the fall.
While the school will adopt a “synchronous” schedule, in which classes will be held at specific times, classes may involve a mix of face-to-face instruction and distance learning, in which because of classroom size restrictions some students will attend classes in-person and others may attend via Zoom technology.
“Whether or not you are face to face or you’re in your dorm room attending a class, we plan to keep a synchronous schedule,” said Bina. “We don’t plan to move to a traditional online component. Our students have made it clear they don’t like that situation and it’s why we’re not an online institution to start with.”
To aid in the switch, Vermilion is suggesting that students bring laptops or tablets with them when they come to school.
While masks won’t be required, Vermilion will provide thousands of disposable masks for use by students and staff.
Enrollment at Vermilion dipped last fall to 539 full-time equivalents, and Bina is expecting a further decline this year, perhaps as much as 15 percent.
“We’re seeing it manifest itself,” Bina said of the decline. “It’s COVID-induced. We were not predicting any decline.”
While new student numbers are promising, VCC is seeing a dip in the number of returning students.
Another wild card is fall athletics, with uncertainty over whether Minnesota community colleges will field football and volleyball teams has left many potential students in limbo.
“What kind of decisions are made on fall athletics could have some impact on new student numbers,” said Bina. “We’re seeing some hesitancy.”
Housing will be at reduced capacity despite regulations that allow schools to house two students per bedroom.
Part of the reduction at Vermilion is to allow the school to set aside some housing units as “quarantine rooms,” where students exposed to the virus could be housed in case a roommate tests positive for COVID-19.
Vermilion will share further information with students as the school moves toward the start of the semester, with classes slated to begin Aug. 24, and students moving in Aug. 22-23.
The campus has been essentially closed since mid-March, with staff working from home.
Like the rest of the schools in the Minnesota State system, in-person graduation commencement ceremonies were cancelled and the school instead held a virtual graduation in May.