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JCC continuing instruction successfully despite statewide outbreaks

Photo by Cameron Hurst Olivia Surma, a second-year nursing student from Dunkirk, works at one of the many check-in tables on the Jamestown Community College campus. Students are required to fill out a health screening virtually and are given a colored wristband each day in order to proceed to in-person classes.

JAMESTOWN — Each day Daniel DeMarte walks the campus of Jamestown Community College.

It’s important, he says, to be seen by the college’s community especially during the present circumstances — circumstances in which doing so also gives him the chance to reinforce the rules.

“I’m watching, I’m looking and I’m paying attention,” the college’s president since 2018 said. “I like to think that, that helps — that I’m seen, that I’m visible.”

Students not adhering to the safety guidelines borne of COVID-19 are few and far between on this college campus, said DeMarte, which has only reported one confirmed positive case of COVID-19 since the beginning of the semester in late August.

“Occasionally, I’ll see someone with a mask that’s not on properly or they don’t have it on and I’ll gently remind them that we’re all responsible for safety on campus,” he said. “I’ll say to a student, ‘The last thing I need is your mom calling me because you’re sick only to find out that you didn’t have a mask on. Help me avoid that situation.'”

That compliance hasn’t been the case at sister institutions across the State University of New York system: member colleges and universities at Oneonta, Buffalo and across the state saw outbreaks a week into the semester with the former suspending in-person instruction for the duration of the fall semester.

SUNY Fredonia, located north of JCC, reported upwards of 80 cases within a 14-day period, coming close to the 100-case threshold that may have forced instruction to be transitioned to online.

Still, he calls the situation on his campus “fluid”“There’s a level of unpredictability that requires us to adapt to the situation, there’s a certain level of uncertainty.” And as a result, the campus — usually the heartbeat of the city’s east side — is quiet.

“There’s barely anyone walking around campus this year, so it has a very eerie feeling about it,” said David Talkington, a second-year student pursuing an associate’s degree in environmental science. “There’s also no events, no gym, no sports and no club activities for students. It’s almost as if the college experience doesn’t exist.”

Olivia Surma, a second-year nursing student from Dunkirk who also serves as a resident assistant, agrees.

“So far (the semester) has been going OK, although it does feel a little weird,” Surma said. “It’s definitely a lot more difficult as far as planning events and reaching out to the residents. We have to get super creative with events so a lot of mine are over Zoom this semester.”

Still, being on campus in some form is better than the alternative to some students. Grace Heim, an occupational therapy student who commutes from Westfield, said the transition to online learning last semester was difficult.

“I am the type of person that has to learn hands on and see things being done so that was extremely challenging for me,” she said. “However, it did push me out of my comfort zone and made me learn things in a way that I had not done before and was not comfortable with doing.”

Now Heim is on campus four days a week for her courses. The protocols the college has taken make her feel safe, she says.

“I definitely feel safe on campus. “ she said. “We are always warned about changes or alerted with new information so I feel as if everything is very open to us and we are in the loop about what is happening all of the time.”

“It feels like they have definitely done well with accommodating as best as they could with the current situation so we can get the most out of the “college experience,” Surma said. “They did restart clinicals in the hospital and my labs are able to be in person with a set occupancy, which is very beneficial to me.”

“Everyone wears their mask like they are supposed to and I frequently see janitor staff cleaning throughout the buildings,” said Jessica Mattice, who commutes to the Cattaraugus County campus in Olean from Little Genesee. “There are also many hand sanitizing stations throughout campus. As long as the rules are followed and people are mindful, I feel that there will not be many issues.”

Those protocols have been something DeMarte has worked on with his cabinet each day since the pandemic forced the college to shut down in-person instruction on March 17 for ultimately the rest of the semester.

“Having that much time in it, we have a list of protocols that have been shared widely internally and externally so that by now, the fourth week into the semester, I think it’s becoming sort of second nature,” he said. “Students have been appreciative that they can be on campus.”

He knows the circumstances are not ideal.

“But, at the same time, they’re not losing momentum pursuing their education,” he said. “Eventually it will look like it did — in time. They don’t need to stop if they don’t want to. They’re going to continue to offer courses and programs as we have.”

Mattice is the mother of two children and works two jobs. She’s grateful to be able to continue her education. While the “learning from home” part of the hybrid model is a challenge, she’s grateful for the small perks it is able to provide.

“Having more space to take notes and being able to get up and get a snack (is a nice perk),” she said. “If one of (the children) needed to stay home because they were sick that would also be a perk to having classes online.”

Still, the fear of another shutdown still is in the back of students’ minds — especially those who are far away from home. Anzhelika Mutygulina is a nursing student from Russia. Upon returning for her second year in August, she had to quarantine for 14 days. “The last four felt like years, not days.”

“The outbreak possibility does worry me a lot, because I am an international student and JCC is my home at this point,” she said. “I won’t be able to go back home, and even if I do, it will be hard to come back to the United States to finish me degree. If they have to shut down campus, other students like me and I will have to find a new place to live, which is not very easy at this time.”

Other issues remain: the college had to close a $4 million deficit after last fiscal year that affected staffing and tuition. Talkington notices the strain on his professors.

“(Staff) are still seeing continuous hourly cuts, which limits a lot of the help students need,” he said, noting that his tuition and housing costs went up. “Also, certain professors are seeing more workload than ever before, making it just that much harder on them. The school is short-staffed. … For students, we are paying more but receiving less than a return for our investment.”

“We had a huge gap to close in our budget,” DeMarte said, noting that SUNY leaders all over the state had to cut costs in different ways. “There was no way for us to close the size of that deficit without looking at every conceivable thing that we could in helping to draw down and get through this fiscal year. A small piece of it was tuition. There were lots of other pieces and most of them larger than tuition.”

He added, “While we didn’t like this, we have done other things. Where we can control cost, we will. I’ll also tell you that this college provides a lot of scholarship money, more than any other place than I’ve been and that’s great and that has not subsided in the pandemic. We still have scholarship money that we’re giving out and the aid that students still have access to.”

DeMarte is convinced that the college can outlast this crisis.

“Yes, we’re in a pandemic, but it’s such a part of our nature and part of our culture to find ways to solve problems, to be resourceful, to work through whatever situation is in front of us,” he said. “That’s the mentality. That’s the attitude and that’s true here. People come to work and they want to help. They want this place to survive and they want to do their part in helping.”

Students, meanwhile, are just grateful to be back in class.

“I really do feel that JCC is doing its best to provide students safe environment on campus and give them opportunity to complete their degree in such a hard time the world is going through right now,” Mutygulina said.

“I enjoy being in person so much more than being online,” Heim said. “I love what I am studying, I love being with my classmates, and I love being able to learn hands-on.”

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