St. John's, St. Ben's shift gears to keep students on campus

A student wears a mask while using a laptop in a hall.
St. John's University sophomore Noah Junker, from Hopkins, Minn., found a quiet place to study last week inside the Great Hall.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Keeping a global pandemic at bay might seem a little easier at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University than at other college campuses in Minnesota.

The small, private liberal arts schools are about 6 miles apart in the central part of the state — and more miles from any major cities. The closest town is St. Joseph, its main street lined with a coffee shop, a couple of bars and a pizza joint.

Most students live on campus — women at St. Ben's, men at St. John's — and take a shuttle bus between the two partner schools, which share academic programs and faculty.

A face mask is placed on a statue of a man wearing robes and holding books
A mask on the statue of Saint Benedict on the campus of St. John’s University serves as a reminder to take safety precautions to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

When administrators here debated over the shape the fall semester might take, they decided that safely bringing students and faculty back to campus would require some dramatic changes — starting with the way students learn.

Instead of taking four or five classes at a time, students switched to block scheduling, in which they're immersed in a single course for almost four weeks.

“It's the same number of hours as a whole semester for the class, but you're just doing one class at a time,” said Richard Ice, the schools’ provost.

The block scheduling cut down on students’ movement on and between both campuses, Ice said. But the shift required a Herculean effort by faculty, and probably wouldn’t have been possible at a larger institution — like the University of Minnesota, for instance — he said.

"They revamped every single class,” Ice said. “You have to change all the assignments and how you're thinking about the class, and what are the important things that you want people to really focus in on."

Paper hearts are taped the window of a building.
Paper hearts greet guests as they enter the Quadrangle building at St. John's University in Collegeville.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

In some courses, students attend class in person some days, and online some days. That keeps the numbers low in small classrooms where social distancing is difficult. Some faculty chose not to return to campus due to health concerns, and are teaching remotely.

"What we're doing now is not normal classes, but it's better than fully remote teaching,” said James Read, a professor and chair of the political science department. "Even if you have to wear masks, you can still walk around these beautiful grounds, and you can still interact with people and meet friends and peers.”

Students have mixed feelings about the changes. Will Nelson, a junior at St. John's majoring in communication and sociology, said he's just happy to be back on campus.

"It's different, because everyone's not in the class every day, and the professor might not be,” Nelson said. “But at the end of the day, I still get that feeling that I'm in class, even on Zoom. We're all collaborative. We have breakout rooms. It just honestly doesn't feel too different."

Some students said they like the block schedule, because it allows them to focus on one subject at a time. Others, including freshman Asher Blancas Pedrosa — who’s taking biology during this block — said it can be tough.

Two students wearing masks walk outside past a building.
Masked students walk across a sparse campus at St. John's University near Sexton Commons on a warm and sunny day in October.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"It's kind of stressful, especially if you're taking a really work-heavy class, because you have to learn a semester's worth of class in only a month,” Pedrosa said.

College isn’t just about classes; there's also the social experience of hanging out with friends, meeting new people and joining sports or activities. This year, thanks to COVID-19, that’s all different, too.

There are no football games drawing large crowds to the St. John’s campus on weekends. Study abroad trips have been canceled. Extracurricular clubs have restrictions on how many people can meet. In August, the colleges advised students to limit socializing to a small “pod” of friends and roommates.

“I've made friends, but it's also kind of forced college to feel more like high school — like kind of clique-y — because everyone is so encouraged to stay in their pod,” said Annika Gothmann, a first-year student.

“You don't socialize with people that are outside your circle, which is like, so bizarre and like not what college is supposed to be. You're supposed to be branching out and being friends with absolutely everyone and all different types of people."

Despite the precautions, in mid-September, COVID-19 cases spiked at St. Ben's and St. John's. Students living off campus were restricted from coming to the colleges for two weeks.

A person wearing a face mask walks through campus.
The campus at St. John’s University is a little more subdued this fall, with all the safety precautions implemented to help reduced the spread of COVID-19.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Many speculated that students might have spread the virus at off-campus social gatherings, which Read said are difficult to control.

“My observation is that most of the students are practicing safety and take it seriously,” Read said. “All you need is a small number that go partying, and you're going to have cases.”

As of this week, there have been 204 positive cases on the two campuses. Of those, 194 no longer require isolation.

In the past few weeks, the number of new cases has slowed, and the additional restrictions were lifted. That means, at least for now, students will be able to remain on campus.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.