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Tahoe colleges, students figure out operations amid COVID-19

Danielle Starkey
Special to the Sierra Sun

College students in California won’t be returning to campus this summer and many won’t return in fall, a crushing disappointment to those who love campus life with its energy, gymnasiums and promise of new friendships.

Now, as students in majors from art to wilderness studies plan their future, they have a new worry: will classes in their field be offered at all and if they will be, how effectively can they be taught online?

Some campuses are adopting a wait-and-see position; others are determined to continue providing their public safety courses, even those that require face-to-face interactions.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before we can go back to our pre-Covid normal,” said Jeff DeFranco, superintendent and president of Lake Tahoe Community College. “We typically have students coming in and out of tight spaces, so I can see the entire 2020-21 (academic) year being impacted by Covid.”

Sierra Nevada University, a private college in Incline, hasn’t announced what it will do for fall, but summer courses will stay online, said Daniel Kelly, director of marketing.

Sierra College, which has a Tahoe-Truckee campus, has announced that its summer and fall semesters will be online.

Lake Tahoe Community College is better prepared than many brick-and-mortar colleges for the rapidly evolving conditions. Even before the pandemic, they were teaching nearly 30 percent of their classes online, said DeFranco.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen a growing number of students opting for online classes, even the ones who live within easy commuting distance of the campus,” which is in South Lake Tahoe, said Brad Deeds, LTCC’s dean of workforce development and instruction. He said that’s in large part due to the local economy. “We have 24-hour establishments here,” and students can fit in classes whenever they want.

Some classes, such as physical education and art classes, won’t be offered until the campus can reopen again because “You can’t do the soccer class online,” added DeFranco.

Other classes that require hands-on practice to earn certification, such as firefighting and emergency medical technician training, will continue — albeit in a modified format, according to Scott Blasser, a firefighter and paramedic with the City of South Lake Tahoe who is director of the EMT course at LTCC.

“As the saying goes, we’re building the plane while on the flight,” Blasser said.

Though social distancing makes it impossible to teach skills in exactly the same way as before, the county nevertheless requires that some instruction hours be face-to-face, he said. “Luckily, we’ve taken steps in the previous quarter to be proactive. A lot of it is just figuring out how we’re going to do the skills portions.”

Students in Blasser’s EMT course need to learn how to medically assess patients’ airway breathing, for example. They do this by inflating a mannequin and listening to her ‘breathe.’

Students will still gather around the mannequin but at a safe distance from each other, fully outfitted in safety gear, and after having had their temperature taken, among other new safety measures, he said.

With most classes online for the foreseeable future, colleges are in the dark about what will happen to their enrollment, but LTCC, where the new semester began April 6, has had a pleasant surprise.

Overall enrollment had dropped slightly from last year when the college offered more classes, but there was an uptick in enrollment in classes that remained.

“Take the PE classes, the art classes, the culinary and wilderness education out of the data set. Enrollment in the remaining classes was up just under 5%,” DeFranco said. “That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s notable when you thought you’d see a drop off.”

Sierra Nevada University, where tuition for fall and spring in 2019-20 was $34,319 in addition to fees of $1,189, had 755 students (including 371 undergraduates) enrolled in 2019, is considering this week “adjustments to the cost of attendance for summer and fall,” said Kelly.

Students who had been living in the dorm and who moved out when the campus closed were credited on a pro-rated basis the cost of their lodging, he added.

Danielle Starkey is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun based in South Lake Tahoe.


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