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Hands-On Learning Continues In The Age Of Social Distancing

Students in a nursing theory class listen to a lecture in the gymnasium, converted into an auditorium, during the first day of class at Manchester Community College on Monday. Students in a nursing theory class listen to a lecture in the gymnasium, converted into an auditorium, during the first day of class at Manchester Community College on Monday.
Photo by David Lane, Union Leader

Posted: September 01, 2020
by Mark Hayward, New Hampshire Union Leader

Yellow caution tape bars entry to the library as if it were a crime scene.

Arrows, also yellow, are taped to hallway carpets to channel foot traffic like painted arrows at a highway intersection.

And don’t forget the posters, logoed facemasks and temperature checks.

Welcome to Manchester Community College, which on Monday started its fall semester along with six other community colleges in the state.

The community colleges join a host of higher-education institutions that either started classes earlier in August or logged their first day of the fall semester on Monday.

Nearly all have put a good deal of their courses online and repurposed large spaces into classrooms.

But hands-free learning is proving a challenge for colleges such as MCC, which emphasize a hands-on learning style.

“I feel like I’m missing out on the personal aspects,” said Ariel Sullivan, as she took a break from her three-hour, 48-student nursing class, which was being held at the community room/gym. “Nursing’s really a family, and it’s hard to maintain 6 feet and establish relationships. I feel I’m a little bit robbed of that.”

Nearby, the student lounge area, with upholstered chairs and comfortable benches, was taped off. Also off-limits was another student area with high-top tables and chairs.

Hands-On Learning Continues In The Age Of Social Distancing
Welding professor Dan Chabot goes over the syllabus outside the class area on the first day of class at Manchester Community College on Monday.

College President Brian Bicknell said he wants his campus to be the safest place outside the home for students.

Students will be required to wear masks, he said.

The college is starting its semester with 2,000 students, about 15% below normal levels, said Bicknell, who was appointed president in April during the height of the pandemic.

Most courses this semester will be online. The computer science program is using augmented reality and virtual reality for its lab work.

But Bicknell said no one is going to learn welding through augmented reality. About 300 students will be taking on-campus courses in programs for nursing, automotive technology, HVAC and welding.

Hands-On Learning Continues In The Age Of Social Distancing
Working at desks spaced out in the gymnasium, students listen to a nursing theory lecture on the first day of class at Manchester Community College on Monday.

In auto technology, additional topics include protocols for COVID-19 that the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association and automobile manufacturers have in place, said Marc Bellerose, the department chair.

He said theory portions of a class have moved online. In lab classes, social distancing will be maintained except for the lab partners that were assigned Monday and will remain paired for the semester.

‘A little harder’

In general, students prefer a classroom over online learning, Bellerose said.

“They like to be face-to-face. They’re not people typically interested in being online,” he said. “We’re techs. We can solve a problem with a 2-minute conversation as opposed to 25 emails.”

Online learning “is a little harder, but I’m used to it by now,” said Pelham resident Cory Chasse, 19, on his first day of classes.

The MCC course catalog shows a mixture of synchronous online classes — meaning students must sign in at specific times — and others where they can work at their own pace. Of the 12 accounting courses, five were synchronous. Of 33 math courses, 25 were synchronous.

Spokesman Victoria Jaffe said non-synchronous classes provide discussion boards, Powerpoints, recorded lectures and other tools. They are developed for student flexibility.

Hands-On Learning Continues In The Age Of Social Distancing
A line of socially distanced HVAC students file in on the first day of class at Manchester Community College on Aug. 31, 2020.

On campus Monday, everyone inside was wearing masks, and only a few students taking a break outside were mask-free. And as they walked back to their class, they all donned masks and spaced themselves out.

Bicknell didn’t find the drop in enrollment entirely unexpected. Community college enrollment is notoriously last minute, he said. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more so, with parents uncertain until recently about their job and their children’s school.

Yet incentives exist to sign up, including grants that have provided $363,000 to MCC alone as of two weeks ago.

The numbers may grow when condensed 12-week and 8-week classes start in September and October.

Other pandemic-related measures include a closed cafeteria, a parking-lot drive up for daily temperature checks and questionnaires, a limit of one person in a restroom at a time. (A user hits a light which declares the bathroom occupied.)

Meanwhile, instructors teach with facemasks even when they are more than 6 feet from their students.

“You gotta go outside and get fresh air. By noontime I have a headache from breathing carbon dioxide,” Bellerose said.

Bicknell said restrictions will grow more challenging with colder weather. But he also said he could relax some restrictions, for example, gradually opening up areas where students lounge and congregate once a culture of masks and social distancing takes hold.

“Managing this,” he said, “is about like controlling a faucet of water.”

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