MONTEREY — When Tucker Evans walked into Monterey Peninsula College for his first class, he let go of a breath he didn’t know he was holding. After months of anticipation, relief momentarily clouded safety concerns and quieted uncertainties.
Challenges aside, Evans was glad to be on campus.
On Aug. 13, MPC welcomed 5,039 students back for a face-to-face fall term out of 17,855 students enrolled in classes this semester. While the school returned with a mixture of in-person, hybrid and online courses, the partial reopening is all that some students needed.
“You don’t realize how much you miss the little things like the occasional smile or compliment or someone just saying nice job,” said Evans as he sat beside his friends in a break between classes. “It’s just been a huge feeling of relief realizing that I’m back in school.”
Evans’ classmates echoed his relief, grateful for the break from Zoom calls even if that means more restrictions while in class.
“I love it,” said Akasha Brown, who started attending MPC this fall. “I love my teachers, and I think it’s really cool to just experience the classroom even with masks. It doesn’t really make a difference to me. It’s mainly about that human interaction.”
MPC has mandated that anyone on campus must wear a face covering while indoors. Free COVID-19 testing is also available on-site, which the school advises students to utilize if they suspect exposure. Likewise, MPC encourages students who have been on campus and test positive for COVID-19 to contact the school.
Like a majority of California’s community colleges, MPC has yet to announce a vaccine requirement. Though the college’s board of trustees has discussed such a policy, the earliest MPC would implement a vaccine mandate would be spring of 2022, according to Kristin Darken, MPC director of marketing and communications.
While masks have offered students a layer of assurance, students like Brown anxiously await a vaccine requirement to really feel comfortable again.
“I think I’ll definitely feel a lot safer once vaccines are mandated, but for now masks feel pretty safe,” she said.
For other students, the wait is less tolerable. Bridgette Suitor, who hopes to finish her associate’s degree in early childhood education this fall, is often distracted by the possibility of sick classmates during lectures.
“I was in class the other day, and one of my classmates across from me was coughing a lot which made me feel physically anxious,” she said. “I ended up moving across the classroom just because I was focusing on that and not even focusing on my teacher.”
Although uncomfortable, Suitor acknowledged that while students can’t be certain everyone around them is safe, there’s a degree of personal autonomy that allows individuals to take safety into their own hands.
“I felt kind of weird moving away from her, but I was also able to focus on my studies more once I did,” she said. “The individual can take control to make themselves feel more safe on campus. That goes for someone deciding if it’s worth coming back to campus or not, too.
“I have a friend who is still so anxious about COVID that I think if they came back they wouldn’t be able to learn. That’s all they would be focusing on. It would take up their mental space.”
Even among those who ultimately opted for in-person instruction, managing a mixture of class models amid the stress of the pandemic has been a learning curve. At the start of the semester, both Brown and Suitor struggled to reconcile their virtual courses with their face-to-face schedules.
“I was actually enrolled (in) a completely online course, and I thought I was ahead of schedule then one day I realized I hadn’t looked at it for two days,” said Brown. “I had two or three assignments that were already past due, and I didn’t even know about them. I got so overwhelmed that I dropped out of the class.”
Suitor attested to her friend’s frustration, retaining her original half online, half in-person schedule but still struggling to keep herself organized.
“It’s been difficult keeping everything straight because the curriculums look different in terms of where you turn things in, how you turn things in and when,” she explained.
Yet Suitor retained confidence in her choice to return, valuing the daily interactions with her instructors and classmates more than she feared the risks and setbacks inherent to in-person instruction during a pandemic.
“I really, really enjoy being in the classroom,” she said. “I enjoy learning, and I feel like I get to do that more in a classroom setting versus online. I’m more motivated to do better in my in-person classes than my online ones.”
On the faculty side, the change is apparent. Laura Loop, the director of the School of Nursing at MPC, pointed toward how holding more didactic, or classroom-based, courses in-person is even beneficial for nursing students who have retained some level of face-to-face lab work since the pandemic began due to the field’s reliance on strong working relationships.
Typically, MPC’s nursing program starts with didactic classes to give students time to build rapport with one another before they engage in clinical work. The introductory period is something students have missed for the past 18 months.
“Nursing is a team sport, and forming friendships is much easier in a 3D world instead of a 2D world. … I think there’s a nervousness on campus in general with the delta variant being so active, but there’s an instructional satisfaction on the part of the students because they have more real-time encounters with instructors and classmates,” Loop said.
At Hartnell College, which started a range of in-person and online classes this week, the anticipation for face-to-face instruction was no less apparent.
“It’s exciting to know that there will be faculty teaching on campus this fall,” said Erica Padilla-Chavez, Hartnell’s governing board president. “I’ve heard reports from the college that there are a lot of freshmen coming to Hartnell (with) a lot of energy.”
Around half of the students enrolled in Hartnell’s fall semester have returned for in-person instruction or some hybrid alternative.
While Hartnell does not require anyone but student-athletes to be vaccinated, a school-wide mandate may not be as far away as its neighboring community college. The Hartnell board of trustees is currently discussing a vaccine requirement and will be considering the matter at their next meeting on Sept. 7, said Padilla-Chavez.
With or without a vaccine mandate, Hartnell will maintain other precautions it has put in place to prevent COVID-19 exposure, which includes required indoor masking, as well as enhanced sanitation and physical distancing in classrooms. The college also requires all employees and students to self-screen for COVID-19 through an app before stepping onto campus.
“It’s about overcoming that fear that someone may be sick,” said Daniel Scott, Hartnell director of public safety and emergency management. “Nowadays, you cough in public and people look at you funny. We’re trying to mitigate those concerns and make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable on campus.”
Contributed by local news sources