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BTC reopens in stages
Students keep learning during pandemic with ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ blend of virtual and hands-on classes
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Garrett Baumann, left, and Mackenzie Weiss, first-year students in Blackhawk Tech’s Medical Laboratory Technician associate degree program, wear personal protective equipment and are separated by Plexiglas shields.

MONROE — Three months after Blackhawk Technical College closed to the public and moved classes to a virtual format in response to the coronavirus pandemic, students are now resuming face-to-face classes.

The June 8 return to campus, with physical distancing and safety protocols, is Stage 4 in the college’s seven-stage reopening plan.

Certain programs began meeting earlier for in-person labs.

On April 27, as part of Stage 2, health and public safety programs were first to get the green light to meet for labs. For Stage 3 on May 26, students in manufacturing, apprenticeship, technology and transportation classes returned to campus to complete hands-on labs and simulation activities.

But students do have some flexibility to keep learning virtually. Blackhawk instituted a flexible learning model called “MyEdChoice” several years ago to accommodate students working full-time or juggling childcare responsibilities.

Now it puts the college ahead of the curve.

“Little did we know this model would be ideal for our students in the middle of a pandemic,” said Jen Thompson, executive director of marketing and communications for Blackhawk.

The MyEdChoice model gives students the choice to come to campus and sit in a classroom, or participate live via video conferencing.

“Or let’s say I have a babysitting issue. I can choose to (participate) after the fact,” Thompson said. “It’s almost like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book for classes.”

All classes have an online component, anyway, “so it wasn’t very difficult for our faculty to transition,” Thompson said. “I think other colleges have been hit with students withdrawing at a higher rate. A lot of our students have stuck with it.”

Developments in virtual lab technology make it easier to do some lab work that students previously had to do hands-on.

“My students will not be on campus for the summer,” said Daniel Harrigan, a lab tech assistant instructor.

Instead they’ll be using “3D immersive virtual lab simulations” from, which advertises itself as “a million-dollar lab, one click away” and promises to “make science come to life anytime, anywhere, at a fraction of the cost.”

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Angela Pak, first-year Medical Laboratory Technician student, washes her hands at the Blackhawk Tech campus in Monroe.

Kathi Winker, instructor in the Medical Laboratory Technician Program, said that “with the pandemic, we were able to bring in some simulation.”

This spring, the two-year program included courses in transfusion medicine, blood bank techniques and coagulation (testing performed to evaluate bleeding disorders and blood thinners therapy).

During the statewide “Safer at Home” public health order, most of Winker’s students were working full time or close to full time in jobs deemed essential under the order, on top of looking after children who were home while schools were closed.

“So their world really got turned upside down,” Winker said. But with the help of video calls and lab simulations, “they didn’t miss a week at all once the pandemic hit.”

During the roughly five weeks that students in the program were learning remotely, Winker had them practice cell identification on simulated digital databases from the University of Minnesota and University of Washington.

There are about 30 steps involved in viewing and evaluating a sample through a microscope, so when students returned at the end of April, “we were checking off their competency at the microscope.”

Everyone back on campus has had to adapt to safety protocols, including designated entrances, signing in and out, temperature checks, COVID-19 symptom checklists, Plexiglas barriers, eyewear or safety goggles and of course face masks and hand-washing.

Students in the Medical Laboratory Technician Program and the one-year Phlebotomy Technician Program will be at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, collecting samples and conducting lab tests.

This month, students learning to be lab techs will be practicing techniques similar to the testing required in convalescent plasma therapy, a therapy that’s shown promise for COVID-19 patients.

“Of our seven graduates, six had jobs the month before they graduated,” Winker said. Some are already working in labs doing COVID-19 tests.

Stages of reopening at Blackhawk Tech were developed by the college’s Crisis Incident Command Team and an Emergency Preparedness Committee, with guidance from local, state and federal officials. Dates have not yet been established for Stages 5-7, which include reopening campus gathering places and allowing public access.

For now, “we kind of feel like we’re settling into — something,” Thompson said. It feels calmer than even one or two months ago. “Especially early on ... there were some days where things would change by the hour.”

Over the past few months, the college has “taken this philosophy that if one student comes to us with an issue, surely other students must have that issue,” she said. “It’s been, I think, one of my greatest professional blessings to watch everybody rally around our students.”

College staff have deployed about 50 laptops on a loan agreement to students who need them, installed Wi-Fi connections in the campus parking lot so students can access the internet from their vehicles, distributed care packages via curbside pickup with food and hygiene items from the student pantry and found financial assistance for over 500 students.

“So much has happened and yet we’re closed to the public,” she said. Through it all, the goal has been to “maintain integrity” of the educational experience.