Two Columbia colleges have different timelines for reopening their campuses amid ongoing COVID-19 health concerns, but they share the same goal: getting students back on track toward earning their degrees and beginning their careers as quickly as possible.
Midlands Technical College began a three-phase reopening process on June 1, when some students returned for lab work. Faculty and staff will begin returning in phases June 15, while students will return to campus when the fall semester begins Aug. 24.
“When I walk around campus without seeing students, it feels empty. It really will be great to have them back on campus, for a number of reasons,” Ron Rhames, MTC president, said. “I think certain students want to be on campus and they want to see their classmates. They want to interact with their instructors face-to-face. That will give us a true sense we’re moving in the right direction.”
At ECPI University, some students have already resumed in-person classes, with safety protocols including temperature checks and face coverings in place.
“Our students didn’t want to be sidelined or have their careers sidelined during this epidemic,” Jim Rund, ECPI Columbia campus president, said. “They want to actually be a part of the solution. They want to get out there with their careers.”
Though concerns about the new coronavirus are not going away — South Carolina announced a record one-day total of 512 new cases on Saturday — Rhames said the nature of many of the college’s programs make online simulation challenging.
“While we know that it (COVID-19) may or may not be around or we may have surge during the fall term, we believe that for our students, for our college, it is best that if we can get as many students in the classroom taking classes,” Rhames said. “It’s much better. That’s because many of our programs require hands-on learning. When you think about a technical college like us, programs require field experience, the lab experience. Those kinds of things are critical.”
That said, Rhames, who praised MTC faculty and staff for a seamless transition to online learning when the school closed in March in response to the pandemic, said the majority of the college’s classes will be offered online in the fall when possible.
“If you’re taking welding, you may have to come to campus,” Rhames said. “But when you come to campus, we’ll have the social distancing in place. We will assure you that you won’t be within six feet of people. We will be cleaning, sanitizing areas and equipment. We will be strongly encouraging people to wear face coverings.”
Such measures are in place at ECPI’s Columbia location at 250 Berryhill Road, which reopened late last month. Faculty, staff and students are entering through designated entrances, disinfecting personal areas at the beginning and end of day, and having their temperature checked.
Face coverings are being worn in all common areas and provided for those who do not have one. Elevators are limited to two passengers at a time, signage is in place to remind people to practice social distancing and classrooms and labs have been reconfigured to allow for more space between workstations.
“You constantly have to have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the pandemic in our area,” Rund said. “If we didn’t think it was safe at all, we wouldn’t do it, and if we have a resurgence of the virus in our area, I’m sure we’ll start closing things up. But we’re gradually opening things and allowing students to come back and get those skills and training.”
Like MTC, ECPI smoothly transitioned to online learning, never canceling a class, Rund said. He said instructors had past experience with that format when hurricanes or floods closed campus.
“We have a pretty good infrastructure, (but) we didn’t want to compromise the hands-on side of it,” Rund said. “We understand that the students really have to get that tactical learning if they’re going to be out there as a nurse or a medical assistant or even as network security, putting routers and switches together.”
While eager to welcome students back to MTC’s seven campuses, Rhames is proud that the college’s online participation has swelled from a few hundred students a few years ago to “thousands of students taking online courses at any given moment. That’s been a national trend as well as a regional one at MTC. I think this will certainly cause more students to want to take online courses, especially in the short term, until people are more comfortable coming to classes.
“But for a certain amount of students, a certain type of students, that on-ground, in-the-classroom experience will really make a difference. Not all students can succeed in the online environment. I think that we will always have a significant amount of students taking classes on grounds.”
Both presidents say the changes brought to the workplace by the pandemic, from an increased need for workers in certain industries to new ways of doing business, will make their colleges and their students even more sought-after going forward.
“We’re committed to continuing our primary mission of workforce development,” Rhames said. “I think after all of this is over with and all is said and done, a college like MTC is going to be needed even more by businesses starting to ramp up. As new economies emerge, our college will be prepared to develop and prepare the workforce for our employers going forward.”
Rund, who said enrollment at ECPI’s Columbia campus is up 15% from last year, takes motivation from those students’ determination.
“Most of the students were very eager to get back into the swing of things. They were very understanding of the situation, and they’re anxious to keep their education moving forward,” he said. “They’ve inspired all of us, just because of their dedication and commitment. They’ve really hung on.
“I tell them, you guys are the pioneers into a new workforce. You’re going to have to find how that workforce is going to be established due to this pandemic.”