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Southern Tech undergoes changes, but not all due to pandemic

Michael D. Smith
msmith@ardmoreite.com
The new testing center at Southern Tech on Wednesday. At least three dozen certification and licensing exams can already be taken at the Ardmore campus, and officials hope to further expand offerings in the state-of-the-art facility.

Walking through the Southern Tech campus in Ardmore is much different than it was even six months ago. Beyond temperature checks, face coverings, hand sanitizer stations and signage with public health reminders, the actual building recently saw massive upgrades completed.

The larger building currently has the smallest student body in recent years thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but officials say it was an expected drop in hopes of drastically slowing the spread of COVID-19. 

The pandemic has highlighted how Southern Tech was ahead of the curve for some aspects of distance learning, but also caused problems ensuring future health care workers are properly trained.

COVID-19 ON CAMPUS

Southern Tech is used to working with the Carter County Health Department. As a major educator of new nurses and health care workers in the county, the vocational school has often sent students to help with public health events.

But during a coronavirus pandemic, the relationship between the two entities is slightly different. Alisha Mason has been leading Southern Tech’s pandemic response and said a recent campus visit from a health department liaison was reassuring. 

“She gave us a couple of pointers that we might want to consider, and then basically said we’re on it,” Mason said.

A sign on a classroom door informs people of coronavirus precautions at Southern Tech Wednesday.

The school has reported three COVID-19 cases to health officials and Mason said one of those cases was recently identified through health department contact tracing. Mason and other school officials commended health department workers and their own students for taking the pandemic seriously. 

“As I walk around, I hardly find one with a nose sticking out,” said superintendent Dr. David Powell, referring to mask usage on campus.

COVID-19 ALERT SYSTEM

Like many other schools, Southern Tech has implemented policies to slow the spread of COVID-19. A color-coded alert system, guided primarily by the Oklahoma State Department of Health COVID-19 Alert System, sets campus guidelines based on local infection rates and hospital capacity. 

On Wednesday, Carter County was in the yellow, or low-risk, category under the state's COVID-19 Alert System. Likewise, Southern Tech was in the yellow category which primarily mandates mask usage on campus except for certain situations.

Students and faculty at the Ardmore campus on Wednesday were masked and socially distanced. Stations with hand sanitizer were scattered throughout the building and nearly every entrance has automated temperature screenings.

A temperature screening device stands near an entrance at Southern Tech Wednesday. Staff, students and guests of the Ardmore campus must be screened before admittance into buildings.

Deputy superintendent Dr. Eric Ward said enforcement of the policies has not been a major issue for administrators. “We stress professionalism from the beginning, and I think our students have really stepped up to that,” he said.

CHANGES FROM PREVIOUS YEARS

The school received $126,000 in federal funds from the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package approved by Congress in March. School officials say the funds were used to purchase cleaning equipment, thermometers, and other supplies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

As a result, sanitization efforts have increased. Some classes, like dental hygiene, now require students to regularly change personal protective equipment, while others like biochemistry are extremely limited on if or how equipment is shared.

Biotechnology students wear face coverings during a Southern Tech class Wednesday.

The pandemic additions are not the biggest changes to the Ardmore campus originally built in 1966. Construction on the western edge of campus, including a new student services area and testing center, was completed in recent months but without major fanfare.

For example, a dedicated testing center with three large exam rooms is expected to be utilized for dozens of examinations and certifications, but officials worry that groups and businesses that would utilize the facility are unaware that the space is available. Powell hopes to announce additional information about the testing center as soon as next week.

The campus expansion also added a meeting room and adjacent lobby that can double as a tornado shelter with dedicated restrooms. Powell said he expects the meeting room to be available for rental but wants to keep a priority on protecting faculty and students from severe weather incidents.

IMPACT ON ENROLLMENT

Powell said he would like to see Southern Tech facilities and equipment for students become available to interested members of the general public. While plans to host public events have been put on hold, Powell still sees these events as important recruiting opportunities.

The pandemic was causing major impacts to enrollment last spring and those impacts continue into the current academic year. Between July 2018 and June 2019, more than 17,400 students enrolled in Southern Tech classes. The following year, including the most recent spring and summer months, student enrollment dropped by 51%.

Southern Tech enrollment has dropped this semester, as well, but Powell said that was expected. The number of high school students is down slightly from 713 to 613, or 14% from last year. Overall enrollment, which includes career and professional development, between July 1 and Sept. 16 was 872, according to a school spokesperson.

“Our enrollment numbers would have been the same [as last year], if not more, but we’re just being cautious. We reviewed several different plans and tried to find one that worked the best for all people involved,” Powell said.

EVOLVING LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

The plan has resulted in plenty of changes from semesters past at Southern Tech. Mason said several classes had to implement “creative” scheduling for class and lab times to limit the number of students in areas. Cosmetology classes are not currently taking clients and dental hygiene classes are only accepting a limited number of clients.

Mason said the school is also struggling with placing nursing students with hands-on learning opportunities because of pandemic restrictions elsewhere. Some clinical rotations are being held through Mercy Hospital Ardmore and virtual offerings from other accreditation partners are filling the gaps, but Mason said nursing programs across the country are facing similar challenges.

“We usually utilize the clinics and the long-term care facilities, but those long-term care facilities are in phase one. They’re not letting anybody in,” Mason said.

Virtual and distance learning is not a new concept for Southern Tech. Even before the pandemic, the school was investing in technology like GoPro cameras so instructors could record lessons and post them online. With federal relief money, the school was also able to purchase additional laptop computers for students to check out.

Biotechnology instructor Dr. Fiona McAlister speaks with a student during class at Southern Tech Wednesday. McAlister said pandemic precautions translate easily into her biochemistry class.

Powell said that a learning management platform intended to provide a cohesive curriculum in the event of employee turnover has unknowingly prepared instructors and students for the move to distance learning.

”We did that really to protect our curriculum and get it a little more organized,” Powell said. “Boy, did it come in handy for COVID.”

Ward believes that plans to digitize curriculum have put his school in a unique position. He believes that virtual instruction for an extremely large student body could be supplemented by campus visits to allow a student to demonstrate the skills they have learned.

“We’re even thinking about how the lessons we’ve learned from adjusting to distance learning is really going to seed the way that we teach in the future,” Ward said.