As a full-time student at New York University this past spring, Sejal Porter saw firsthand just how devastating the coronavirus can be. 

So she understands why instructors at Arapahoe Community College, where she temporarily enrolled this summer, had to revamp the hands-on training program for her emergency medical technician classes. 

The summer program had its challenges. With social-distancing orders in place, students couldn’t practice such tasks as checking blood pressure with real people. 

“With medicine, it is so incredibly difficult to learn everything that we needed on mannequins and without being able to, for instance, take a pulse on somebody,” she said.

But she’s hoping the summer’s emphasis on safety becomes the norm when the full student body returns in the fall, and that students take the risks seriously.

“It’s all interconnected. It takes one person to go to a frat party to have an impact on your life,” said Porter, 19, who is taking time off from NYU to work on an ambulance. “I just want to see a general respect among peers, which is not something a school can deliver, but something that we as a society have to deliver.”

Colleges and universities in Colorado and across the country are hoping that the protocols developed and practiced over the summer can help them bring students back to campus without major outbreaks of the coronavirus. At stake are not only the health and educational prospects of students — some of whom are likely to drop out if their programs are delayed or moved online — but also the financial health of institutions like Arapahoe that depend on tuition dollars. 

The challenges are numerous, including getting students and faculty to consistently follow rules about wearing masks and keeping distance from one another on and off campus.

Rebecca Woulfe, Arapahoe’s vice president for instruction and provost, said the college is aiming to teach students to be vigilant in keeping themselves and others safe. So far, she’s found over the summer that students are willing to take the extra steps to follow safety protocols. She said it will be harder with more students on campus this fall.

To be sure, not as many students as usual will be on campus. Fewer than 40% of the school’s programs will have students meet in person even occasionally for hands-on laboratory learning.

But that still leaves plenty of students interacting on campus. And while the school doesn’t have dorms, Woulfe said she must account for the many students who work essential jobs or families and who must go out into the community. The average age of students there is 24 and many have young families, Woulfe said. 

“When they go home to their families every night, it brings its own set of challenges,” she said.

No mask, no class

Doc Viola, Arapahoe’s automotive technology director, said his department was tasked with creating a system this summer where students know the expectations for safety. Viola said he dissected how his program used to operate and then built in safety procedures where he could.

He said he is ready for more students in the fall with precautions that include requiring students to wipe down tools with disinfectant, splitting up the class so some students only show on certain days and creating a schedule where students must sign up to work on cars. 

He also adjusted his syllabus so students’ grades ride on how well they comply with mask requirements and other safety precautions.

“If they don’t wear a mask, they are asked to leave, which then counts as an absence,” he said.

Nathanel Cho, 17, said the revised program balanced the online work with hands-on instruction. It helped, he said, that the summer classes had fewer students enrolled.

“It was comfortable,” he said. “I think teachers structured it quite well.”

As the fall approaches, Viola said schools and instructors must make it so there is no other option but to follow safety guidelines.

Just one case

So far this summer, there has been only one case of coronavirus at the college, Woulfe said. The student contracted the virus outside of school.  

The protocols to quarantine that student and any others the student came into contact with seemed to work, Woulfe said, setting a template to follow for any possible outbreaks in the fall. 

But even the best-laid plans can be upended if someone is skirting the school’s policies, Woulfe said.

A Tuesday article by The Coloradoan said Colorado State University football players and athletic department staff alleged coaches told players not to report coronavirus symptoms.

The school’s president has since launched an investigation.

And in Boulder, public health authorities pointed to graduation parties attended by University of Colorado students as one source of rising cases in that community. 

Woulfe said the community college’s approach starts with a collaborative message to students and faculty that everyone must keep each other safe. But violating health rules will be considered a violation of the school’s code of conduct.

“This is the way we are running our campus this fall,” she said, “and if you choose not to follow the rules you will be asked to leave.”

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.