ROCK SPRINGS – Spring break lasted a little longer for some at Western Wyoming Community College.

While classes that had been fully converted to online formats concluded May 11 and some students and staff started summer vacations, other Mustangs resumed their hands-on coursework on Monday.

An upbeat staff greeted returning technology and industry students along with a health questionnaire and temperature checks. Other additions included directional arrows to avoid cross foot traffic and markings on the floor to designate safe spacing distances at check in and Mitchell’s Dining Hall, which had converted to takeout only. Some hallways were closed to students, and facial coverings and limited class sizes are new requirements.

Western’s president, Dr. Kim Dale, noted the college is among the first in Wyoming to resume in-person instruction. College staff worked hard on a detailed variance request, which was approved by the Sweetwater County and state health officers. Dale said if their plan goes well over the next six weeks, she expects they will continue to use it for the summer semester.

Things appeared to go fairly smoothly with Monday’s rollout, and Dale said their intention is to offer “face to face” teaching in the fall. She anticipates a hybrid system, which could include smaller classes and staggered schedules.

HAPPY TO BE BACK

Dr. Dale led a tour of the reopened Rock Springs campus Monday.

“It’s obviously really quiet,” she said.

There were fewer people on campus than a normal semester. All but nine international students had moved out of the residence halls, though about 20 students moved back in to finish their spring courses. About 150 people had gone through the health check-in process as of midday Monday with more expected for afternoon classes.

Masks couldn’t contain excited exchanges Dr. Dale had when passing students in the hallway.

“We’re back!” she called repeatedly.

She received multiple good reports from staff.

“Luckily I started off with a good class,” Joe Uriarte, an associate professor of compression, told her.

He said it was easier to maintain spacing when there were only eight in the class, though his next class had 15 students expected, so he’d have to split them up into groups.

Registrar Stu Moore took a break from pushing a cart of supplies for graduation to talk about preparations for the online commencement ceremony set for 1 p.m. Saturday, June 27. Celebrants are invited to park on campus and tune in to Mustang Radio on 91.3 FM, and after the ceremony there’ll be a Mustang Stampede parade with support from the Rock Springs Police Department. For those outside Sweetwater County, a virtual graduation video will be streamed.

When asked for an update, Paul Johnson, an oil and gas instructor and division chair, said, “It’s worked out great.”

He said everyone was practicing proper distancing. Big shop spaces make it easier, he noted, though it’s harder when an instructor has to point out something small.

While acknowledging some of the pains, Johnson added everybody’s been plenty willing to work through the challenges.

BACK IN BUSINESS

Sparks were flying in the welding classroom, where an open bay door helped moderate the temperature.

Instructors said they’ve expected to be slammed, but students were coming in slowly.

Jake Manniko, a welding professor, said about 45, give or take, were coming back to finish.

Professor Rick Paravicini said students are both happy and a little confused. After taking such a long break and some not being able to continue learning at home, he said they’d have to backtrack and return to previous lessons.

While wearing face masks made things feel warmer, Paravicini said they probably should have been wearing masks all along to protect from the metal in the air.

“Better to error on the side of caution,” he said.

In addition to new safety guidelines, there was a new instructor at Western. After a lengthy welding career, Robert Tarno was about to start teaching as the coronavirus shut things down. After the delay, he was ready to begin working with the next generation.

“These are the people I want to leave everything to,” he said of the students. “All the of the stuff I have been my ears.”

Paravicini joked if Tarno can make it through this week, he’ll be fine.

STEPPING UP

Of the roughly 550 courses Western offered in the spring semester, about 200 were online or hybrid before the coronavirus became an issue, according to Dale. As state health orders started limiting crowd sizes, among other restrictive measures, Western extended its spring break to give staff more time to adapt the other classes. Over the two-week break, another 200 were transferred to virtual, with instruction being online or conducted through Zoom video conferences.

Other courses that relied on labs or other hands-on instruction were the ones that restarted May 18.

The president gave much credit to students and staff for being flexible and responsible when it came to new expectations. Dr. Dale noted that the college hadn’t reduced its workforce and hoped they wouldn’t have to revisit the decision. She said employees had been tapped to perform tasks beyond their regular duties, such as making welfare calls or working the front desk, and they’d done everything asked of them.

Dr. Philip Parnell, Western’s vice president for student services, emphasized how well students had made adjustments along with the college.

“I give our students all the credit,” he said. “It’s just weird and not normal, and they just are doing it.”

Dr. Dale said people keep asking about Western’s future plans. A lot of effort and focus was put into reopening this week, and now that they’ve celebrated that milestone, they’re going to look ahead.

She attributed some of Western’s success to the understanding that has been offered and said more will be required as they move forward.

“We, as a community, need to give each other grace,” Dale said.

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