Wyoming's Community Colleges Plan For Uncertain Fall Semester

Jul 31, 2020


Wyoming has seven community colleges - and each one is preparing for the fall in its own way.

For instance, Laramie County Community College is planning to offer most of its courses online. But Eastern Wyoming College is going "full steam ahead" with in-person classes.

Students living on-campus at Northwest College will be in single rooms, whereas Casper College students don't need to be.

LCCC President Joe Schaffer said each college's plan is determined by its local elected board of trustees.

"As you start to look at plans - Northwest College has released theirs, Central Wyoming College has released theirs - you will see a lot of similarities, although certain choices about programming, density, even some protocols may be unique to that institution's own environment," he said.

But Schaffer added his and other colleges are working with the Wyoming Community College Commission and the governor's office to coordinate on some decisions.

Dr. Mark Dowell, an infectious disease specialist in Casper, is optimistic about his local college's plan for the fall.

"I think learning in-person is better. I think most of us would agree you get more out of it," he said. "But I think the key is 'do you follow the protocol you have set up absolutely?' and not get lazy and let things get by."

At Casper College, students, faculty and staff will be wearing masks. Classrooms will be disinfected during the 10-minute break between classes.

"If that is adhered to, and people are sitting at least six feet away in the classroom, I can see that as a potential win, as long as everything that is promised is adhered to," Dowel said.

He said colleges will need to educate those on campus about best practices, and that college leadership must be willing to make the tough call to close campus if an outbreak occurs.

"People will be people," Dowell said. "But at least in the setting you can control, you can say, 'If you're not willing to do this, you'll have to learn online. You're endangering your fellow students.'"

Many of the community colleges plan to go completely, or primarily, online after Thanksgiving break. All of them plan to monitor the pandemic's development and adjust to changing circumstances.

So what should colleges be doing?

"Three or four things would help reduce transmission that would happen in the classroom," said Christine Porter, a University of Wyoming associate professor and researcher. "One hundred percent: people need to wear masks. That's number one."

Porter added social distancing in the classroom is also necessary. And upgrades to HVAC systems, so that air is pulled up and out of the room rather than allowed to circulate, could also keep the virus from spreading - but Porter said it's probably too late to install such upgrades before the semester.

A residence hall with normal, full occupancy might sound like a superspreader event in the making - but Porter said it doesn't have to be.

"Students who would like to live with somebody else, and they want to make each other in their bubbles, it's just like living with your family," she said. "I certainly wouldn't require them to live with somebody else, but I think they should have the option because you're talking about one other person."

Porter said the real challenge comes outside of the classroom, and maybe off-campus.

"The struggle is going to be that, on average, people in the age group of the average college student generally are making decisions based on a feeling of invincibility, possibly being under the influence and prioritizing, understandably, the social bonding/engagement part of being in college."

Young people defying public health orders is a thing that worries everyone. That's because it's happened across the country, including here in Wyoming.

Parties in Uinta and Natrona County have helped to spread the virus. And four Laramie women suspected of having the virus were charged in May for ignoring a quarantine order.

Porter said she is worried colleges and other institutions will put a lot of time and money into reopening, and then have to shut down anyway in the wake of an outbreak.

"Even if 80 percent of the students do the right thing, or 90 percent do the right thing, it would only take a small group to lead to these spreading events," she said. "And that seems very likely based on everything we know and have seen so far."

Neither the Wyoming Department of Health nor the Centers for Disease Control have issued any guidelines for reopening colleges this fall.

This lack of national leadership is putting colleges in an unfair and ridiculous position, Porter said.

"Each community college in Wyoming, each community college in the country, every higher education institution in the country, should not be having to figure this out on their own," she said. "A pandemic is time for national planning and support and guidance and we are not getting it."

As the fall semester draws closer, Wyoming community colleges are hopeful. But they realize they may be looking ahead to a year of decreased enrollment and radically transformed campus life.

LCCC President Joe Schaffer said it's still a good time to enroll in college.

"We're open for business," he said. "We'll have opportunities for everybody and we really want to encourage folks not to lose traction or lose ground and continue to stay engaged in higher education."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Jeff Victor, at jvictor@uwyo.edu.