SIOUX CITY -- Mari Pizzini will graduate from Morningside College in December, with her final two semesters being heavily impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic that delivered a significant blow starting in March.
The midpoint of the spring 2020 semester saw Morningside, with little warning, joining other regional colleges in converting to all online instruction. Pizzini was supposed to go to Europe for a learning opportunity during the May term period, and that was wiped out.
Now, her final semester is still being affected. Although in-person classes are back for many courses, Pizzini sees reminders of the virus, by virtue of masked-up students on campus, posted reminders on most every building door and a paring back on homecoming week activities.
"I had my whole senior year changed," said Pizzini, a native of Helena, Montana, who will graduate with an English degree.
She added, "(Students) are just happy to be able to come back."
Pizzini is one of a few thousand students at Morningside, Briar Cliff University and Western Iowa Tech Community College, which are all taking steps to deliver classes while taking precautions to keep students safe.
Briar Cliff has embarked on an intensive scheduling approach that has many courses condensed to four weeks at a time. At BCU, Morningside and WITCC, students are taking some courses in a hybrid version of both online and in-classroom portions, and all three colleges require students to wear masks in public places, while cafeteria buffet lines are out.
The mask requirement at the colleges makes for a different approach from area K-12 school districts, where most only recommend rather than mandate usage, a Journal survey showed.
As of Friday, Woodbury County has had more than 4,400 positive cases of coronavirus, while the number of deaths from the virus stands at 58.
Since fall classes started at the WITCC campus in Sioux City on Aug. 25, two employees and seven students have tested positive for the virus, as of last Thursday. Morningside had 17 students and two employees test positive, with higher amounts of students quarantining both on and off campus that has about 2,400 students this semester.
Briar Cliff, which an enrollment of about 1,100, has so far refused to release numbers of students who have tested positive. Spokeswoman Erin McElroy acknowledged there are currently an unspecified number of "active cases."
"We will share when cases influence a notable change on campus, such as changing our operational level, moving instruction to an online-only format, or discontinuing activities," McElroy said.
WITCC executive dean of instruction Darin Moeller said if numbers rise again in the community it's likely that college students would also be among the people impacted.
"It would not surprise me if we become a hot spot," Moeller said.
Chris Spicer, Morningside vice president of academic affairs, said he expected to have positive cases, so "given the complexities of the pandemic, the semester is going as well as we could hope."
"We have kept our focus on mitigation. There were many processes and plans we were able to develop over the summer to prepare, including the faculty working tirelessly to develop courses so they could easily be offered in hybrid or online formats. These first four weeks of class have given us an opportunity to make refinements and adjustments based on what students and employees are telling us," Spicer said.
David Hoferer, a Briar Cliff professor of biology/environmental science, said most classes this fall are being taught in four-week blocks, so many students will take one course per month to form most of their semester. Some courses are offered in eight weeks or 16 weeks, with those primarily being classes with hands-on elements, such as clinicals for nursing students.
Hoferer said school officials recognize having such a condensed teaching of BCU classes has some degree of difficulty, as students need to keep up daily and not fall behind. Anecdotally to his point, Hoferer has heard some "some like focusing on one course at a time rather than five," while some students dislike the short courses.
He also pointed with pride to the Charger Health Checks initiative, in which students get a daily text asking if they are feeling healthy and a reminder to use the digital thermometer all students received to take their body temperatures.
Those BCU students who have temperatures in the normal range and complete the daily survey to confirm that get a daily green pass that is sent to mobile phones, which can be shown to prove they have unrestricted access to classes and activities. Others with differing outcomes, in the yellow color category, need to visit the Alverno Hall health office before being able to go to class.
"I am somewhat hopeful we won't have an outbreak," Hoferer said. "We have taken a lot of precautions, so now it is up to students" to take precautions in their personal lives and off campus.
At Morningside, Pizzini said she feels safe on campus, in large part due to the mask mandate, a step she really likes. In the few instances where students aren't wearing masks, she said a simple reminder from others in the vicinity will move the students to mask up.
"Mask requirements are a good thing because it protects your community," Pizzini said. "It is important that you care about the health of others."
She was not a fan of all-online courses last semester, saying her English and journalism courses benefit from discussions with other students, and Pizzini asserted those don't happen sufficiently in a video conferencing format.
She was on campus working a summer job, so as Morningside officials pieced together how the fall semester would look, Pizzini was gratified she could weigh in with a student perspective.
"They kept asking," she said.
The start of the Morningside year was moved up by one week, to Aug. 19, in order to finish classes by Thanksgiving, which is a step some other regional colleges are also taking.
Pizzini likes the transparency of Morningside having an online summary of positive numbers of coronavirus cases and mentioned the flexibility that professors have shown in classes. She cited one who split a course from meeting three times a week to once per week, so students could meet in smaller cohort groups of less than 10.
"We definitely would not have been able to socially distance if all of us had been in there," Pizzini said.
WITCC fall semester classes include both online and flex courses. Flex courses combine face-to-face, online and Zoom learning, with instructors delivering as much content as possible in the traditional classroom setting.
"Flexible learning is our goal," WITCC vice president of learning Juli Albert said.
Albert said college officials were ready to roll with online education in March when the shift occurred, since WITCC had been delivering online education for 22 years.
"I like to say that at Western Iowa Tech we’ve been preparing for this very moment for 20 years. Of course we didn’t know COVID was coming, but over the past years we have become a leader in online education through our involvement in the Iowa Community College Online Consortium," Albert said. "Our transition in March was as painless as it could have been."
Albert said for several years, every student has been provided their own MacBook, which made the overnight switch last March to online learning even smoother.
Albert and Moeller said students have typically been wearing masks and cleaning measures are plentiful. Albert remains hopeful the the college year won't be disrupted by the pandemic.
"It all depends on whether we get that second wave," she said.