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Area colleges prepare for fall semester amid COVID-19 concerns

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — College campus faculty and staff have worked over the summer to find solutions for students to begin or continue their education safely. The inclusion of on-campus housing has been of particular concern as students move back in for fall semesters around the country.

On Thursday, just across the state line, the University of Notre Dame’s COVID-19 dashboard updated to 304 confirmed cases and 1,780 tests since Aug. 3. Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, announced on Tuesday the school’s undergraduate classes would be going virtual due to the COVID-19 rates spiking on campus.

As Notre Dame’s students work remotely for the next two weeks, two colleges in Berrien and Cass counties, Lake Michigan College and Southwestern Michigan College, do not begin classes until Sept. 4. Both have multiple campuses. Administrations from each school have taken steps this fall to help get ahead of the continuing pandemic.

SMC’s administration has opted for face-to-face instruction for the fall, as long as the region stays in Phase 4 of Michigan’s Safe Start Plan. The college is piloting some online-only courses.

LMC’s administration has decided to minimize on-campus learning, giving faculty the summer to develop online coursework.

“I listened to Father Jenkins’ message twice,” said Joseph Odenwald, president of SMC. “I understand the source of spread was largely from off-campus parties. We haven’t had that kind of campus culture, so I am less concerned at this point about community spread in that way.”

Odenwald added that SMC’s student body is just 14 percent of Notre Dame’s enrollment. Notre Dame reports on its website an undergraduate student enrollment of 8,731.

“We are prepared for a change, if necessary,” Odenwald said. “We are most interested in seeing if community spread occurs even when the precautions we are taking are being utilized, including small classes, social distancing of 6 feet apart, mandatory masks and enhanced sanitizing.”

Odenwald said he has noticed in the cases of other college campuses experiencing the COVID-19 virus spreading, certain protocols were not followed.

Southwestern Michigan College officials have been sending out COVID-19 training to students to complete before they return to campus in the fall. As of Wednesday, about 25 percent of the student body had completed it.

Of LMC’s three campuses, just one has a residence hall. The Benton Harbor campus has its own student housing, Beckwith Hall. It has the capacity to house 188 beds, according to the college’s website.

SMC has two campuses, its main campus in Dowagiac and a second campus in Niles. The Dowagiac campus includes McKenzie Hall. Students moving into on-campus housing will be required to have a recent, negative diagnostic COVID-19 test prior to arriving to campus.

“While this snapshot is not perfect in prevention as evidenced elsewhere, we believe it is the right call at this time and will give us a baseline to begin with the population who lives here,” Odenwald said. “Beyond that, we trust that our students will follow the protocols.”

He said the campus will be flexible with student residents, as some testing does take longer to turn around from laboratories. Odenwald said the college has provided information on locations to get tested in Michigan and Indiana.

Both colleges’ presidents have reduced the housing capacities as the campus staff, faculty and administration prepare for the students to return.

“We will have about 70 to 75 percent of our spaces full,” Odenwald said.

LMC’s president, Trevor Kubatzke, reported that LMC’s housing, Beckwith Hall, will be capped at 65-percent occupancy. The housing includes extra, empty space in the multiple-person suites, so that a student could isolate in one half the apartment if needed. There are also rooms left empty specifically for use of isolating, if need be.

“Early in July, we decided to make a call for the fall so our students could develop a path to the fall semester and not string them along or have them change abruptly,” Kubatzke said.

“You’re seeing at some universities right now going from on-campus to off-campus [education]. We decided for the safety of our students, faculty and staff any class that could be delivered remotely, would be delivered remotely.”

LMC has decided on four different class models, that range from fully online and work at your own pace to classes where you still have to “arrive” for a virtual course during scheduled times. Some of the programs require in-person experiences and instruction, such as skilled trades and health occupations. Those who get through the survey for the day with no symptoms to register will be given a green check mark on their result to show security guards when they arrive on campus.

“Those classes are in a hybrid model,” Kubatzke said. “The lectures will be virtual, but when [students] come to campus, we will divide the classes up into small sizes of five or six. Then we can space them between labs.”

This procedure also includes time for cleaning in each classroom between classes.

Anyone coming to campus, whether student or otherwise, will be required to answer questions modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention questions to screen out COVID-19 symptoms. Those who do complete the survey online will be able to show campus security the “green check” they will receive if their symptoms do not raise any alarm. If someone does have symptoms, they will be isolated or asked to return to their home. People who do not fill out the questionnaire online before arriving at campus will be screened by security guards.

SMC is taking a similar approach, with daily screenings of those coming to campus.

Repurposing the school’s acronym, SMC is now also translated into “Safety Means Compassion,” Odenwald said.

At the end of a fall semester update email sent to everyone on campus last week, Odenwald signed off with a sentiment bridging the spring semester and fall.

“I shared in my messages last spring that we needed to ‘finish strong,’” he said. “This fall, we’ll need to ‘start strong’ to ensure our community can remain healthy and ‘finish strong’ in December. I have no doubt that we will again rise to the occasion.”

For students attending SMC, move in dates for the residence hall begin on Aug. 30, with welcome week following through Sept. 4. Classes begin on campus Sept. 8.

For LMC students, classes and welcome week begin Sept. 8.

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