Students attending South Dakota’s four technical colleges can expect a more nimble and responsive academic approach this fall.

That comes after learning what works and what needed improvement after closing out the final two months of spring classes with students and faculty working from home or off-campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Dakota Board of Technical Education Executive Director Nick Wendell said recently.

“Like so many post-secondary institutions, we had to figure out in quick order how we were going to close out the spring semester and complete all of the expectations involved with clinical rotations and completing internships and the skills checks that should happen in a hands-on training field,” Wendell said. “In the social distancing world that we had in March, April and May, that was difficult to accomplish.

Technical education is known for being a field in which hands-on training is critical but Wendell said COVID-19 gave students and colleges the chance to learn a lot about how classes can be delivered, including accessing students throughout the state, and not just on the four technical college campuses at Mitchell Technical College, Lake Area Technical College in Watertown, Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls and Western Dakota Technical College in Rapid City.

“We had students who went home for spring break and did not come back," Wendell said. "We had this hybrid, distance learning and it allowed us to test what you could do presenting your classes from afar throughout the state, through online delivery. At times, we have thought that would be challenging. But when you ask students to come to one of the four campuses, that creates some barriers and accesses issues, too. We saw some good results, where a student could be in Miller and could still complete a semester."

Wendell said some skilled professional fields are not an ideal position to finish their studies at a distance or away from the traditional classroom or lab setting and bringing students to campus is a preferred method, but schools now have a better idea of what’s possible.

Health care was a good example of a curriculum adjusted greatly by COVID-19. Because of the virus, health care facilities had to restrict access, that included students who were seeking to finish clinical rotations in hospitals or medical care centers. Many of those students, particularly second-year students nearing their degrees, used online simulations to close out their class requirements.

“There would not be a good time for anyone to have something like this throw off their learning methods, but it was easier to reinforce those skills for students to finish out their classes, given that this was the last six weeks of the program," Wendell said. "It was really about reaffirming skills that had been developed over the years and about crossing the finish line with success.”

The flip side of that, Wendell said, is that a stoppage in classes would be more challenging for first-year students early in the semester who are getting acclimated to their classes.

“This is about getting people out of the starting gate,” he said. “The online simulations, they’re really impressive modules and good hands-on training can reinforce and improve the technical aspects of some of our areas of study. Launching into the programs this fall, the more class days we get, the better. It’s so important to do that if we can.”

Wendell said that even with a quieter spring period, when recruiters couldn’t visit high school students in person, he expects enrollment should be close to normal levels.

“We are seeing pretty healthy enrollment,” he said. "We might see some enrollment decreases, but we’re expecting it will be game-time decisions for a lot of students and families.”

It’s also possible that continued job issues could lead people back to post-secondary education for a chance to change or advance careers.

“When you see thousands of people apply for reemployment assistance, you know there’s some movement in the job market,” Wendell said. “A lot of times, that includes our technical colleges. We might see some changes in enrollment, but we also might see some renewed interest among nontraditional students.”

Wendell said colleges have been preparing for the likelihood of confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and the school’s workforces. He said because students at the technical colleges generally live in off-campus housing and apartments, there’s a responsibility to make sure that the general public is kept safe as well.

“Our system has always been known for having campus leaders, faculty and department heads who are problem solvers,” he said. “Even then, this is a pretty unprecedented situation. We’d expect it will be a fairly unpredictable fall … but when you come through a situation like that, it is a tremendous opportunity to come through it in a positive manner, if you’re in the learning attitude.”