MILWAUKEE — Under normal circumstances, there would be nothing particularly extraordinary about a group of aspiring surgical technicians gathering for a lab course at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

But when a group of seven students sat around a room at the school's downtown campus earlier this month, they became some of the first collegians to return to the classrooms they had walked away from when the coronavirus pandemic hit. They also got a glimpse of what things could look like for college students across the country come fall.

They all wore masks. They kept their distance when possible. They had their temperatures taken upon arrival and followed markings on the floor to their classrooms.

At Wisconsin's technical colleges, the rapid shift to online-learning was particularly challenging.

Rather than heading home and switching on their laptops, students in hands-on programs saw their courses derailed, as faculty struggled to replicate remotely the experience of drilling into a piece of metal with heavy machinery, or sitting behind the wheel of a semi-truck, or watching their students shimmy into a surgical gown.

"There is no way to do this virtually," Mary Kunicki, the director of MATC's surgical technology program, said as she watched her students put on their gowns. "You can watch a million videos but you have to do it."

As a result, as most other colleges and universities continue planning for the fall, technical colleges are slowly bringing back some classes this summer, so students can complete the courses they were forced to cut short.

Most have started with makeup courses from the spring, with the intention to also start new in-person courses in the summer and fall.

Of course, the colleges look and feel different. At MATC, students check in at a single point of entry and have their temperature taken by a screener contracted by the college. They have to fill out a health questionnaire and complete a 30-minute training on campus expectations.

There are signs everywhere, telling students and staff where to go and where not to go. Areas of the buildings are blocked off to sections that are cleaned regularly. Masks are required. Stickers on the floor tell people where to stand. Elevators are limited to four passengers at a time.

It's all part of planning that has been underway since March 16, when the campus first closed. By late June, MATC planned to have some 500 students back in classes. Simply stocking enough masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning products is a major task.

"It's a daily activity to obtain personal protective equipment," said James Weishan, MATC's senior director of facilities development, operations and construction.

Weishan has a background in industrial hygiene, so he's not unfamiliar with the precautions he's been working to put in place. Still, he admits he never imagined doing all this at a college. The work is constant.

"It's just something that will have to be continually evaluated," said Weishan.

'Don't want to graduate late'

Kunicki's students said they felt safe and were happy to get back on track with their schooling, even if that meant summer classes.

"I'm glad we came back because it gives us a chance to catch up," said Hala Barakat, 20. "I don't want to graduate late."

Kunicki moved part of her course online, delivering lectures on theory and administering exams remotely, a transition she knew was difficult for her students.

Jason Palmatier, 42, said he struggled because he thrives on learning in a group. He said on his first exam in the remote setting, he earned a 78%, despite testing in the 90% or higher range prior to the shutdown.

"The readjusting was very hard for me," Palmatier said.

And while they were glad to have been able to keep some learning going during the campus closure, Palmatier and Barakat agreed their labs could not have moved online.

Palmatier said he believed reopening colleges and workplaces was a must, as long as it is done in a way that allowed people to resume life while protecting those who are at risk of severe COVID-19 complications. He spent the lockdown working an essential job at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

"We have to keep the world running," he said.

Kunicki said getting back to in-person classes was important because it brought her students that much closer to entering the workforce, where they are sorely needed.

"There is a critical shortage of surgical techs in the Milwaukee area and I cannot graduate enough to fill the need out there right now," Kunicki said. "So I'm really glad that we were able to finish this course."

Back to the machines

About 20 minutes west, students at the Waukesha County Technical College are also coming back to the classroom. 

Instructors in the school's metal fabrication/welding and machine tool operation programs said they tried to adapt their curriculum by asking students to watch video demonstrations and assigning research papers, but there was nothing that could replace getting their hands back on the equipment.

"They're learning feeds and speeds. They're learning the sound and the feel of making a chip, cutting something. Sometimes, if something is burning, it's the smell," said Dennis Pollari, tool and die instructor. "Hearing and smelling it — you need to have that element in there. That's why we're doing this."

The campus has about 100 classes back, with the intention of bringing more students back this fall under a hybrid online and in-person model.

The college is screening people, requiring they report if they test positive for COVID-19. It also is working with the local health department to conduct contact tracing. Only one door is used for entering and exiting the campus, and everyone must check in with a campus security officer. There is no temperature testing, but students and staff are required to self-report symptoms.

Justin Haessly, 23, is a student in the machine tool program. He said he's happy to be back to life. When the pandemic hit, he started picking up shifts at a local Target store. He has a bachelor's in marketing and just got a new job at Rogers Behavioral Health in that field. But he wants to shift his career toward machine tool operation.

"This is something I prioritize, I'm focused on," Haessly said. "I will take whatever the precautions need to be (taken) to finish my schooling. I missed out on a couple months. I planned to finish this summer. I was going to be moving on to a job in the fall, you know, start my life."

He said he feels safe being back, wearing masks and wiping down the equipment he uses. In another class, CNC Turning Operation, students have to work in groups to operate the machinery, so the college also provided face shields because students can't practice social distancing.

While some of his peers seem to be chafing at the masks and other restrictions, including the loss of a break in their three-and-a-half-hour class, he said people have been following the new requirements.

Across the hall in the gas tungsten arc welding lab, instructor Dan Still was back to working with students in the college's dual enrollment academy high school program.

"It was a little hard getting started back," said Austin Wegner, who just graduated from Mukwonago High School and plans to continue his education at WCTC next school year. "But after the first hour or two, it was back to where I left off, I feel like."