Rochester Community and Technical College will shut down for two weeks starting Monday and transfer all instruction to online as COVID-19 infections spread rapidly through the community.
"Our numbers are on the rise, like others. Now is the time to do what we can to mitigate (it)," said RCTC spokesman Nate Stoltman.
The decision by RCTC President Jeffery Boyd comes as infections in the county have soared to a daily average of 500, and some of the biggest spikes are occurring in the 18-to-34 age group.
RCTC opened the school year with more students taking hybrid or online courses than in past years, in response to the pandemic. RCTC serves about 5,200 students, with 30% taking in-person classes and 70% taking fully online courses or a combination of in-person and online instruction.
RCTC is seeing a rise in infections in both students and faculty, an official said. There is no evidence that these exposures have taken place on campus, but they are impacting the school's operations as more staff and faculty stay home sick, to self-quarantine or to take care of sick family members.
The RCTC dashboard shows 74 students and eight staff members have been infected by the virus.
"We are seeing more quarantining and isolating, because other family members have had it and that means they have been exposed," Stoltman said.
The two-week pause is similar to Winona State University's two-week quarantine in September to slow the transmission of the virus. One big difference is that RCTC does not have its own student housing. Virus outbreaks on college campuses were common as students returned to school in August and September. In the RCTC case, the shutdown appears to be more in response to rapid community spread outside its walls.
The move comes as confirmed cases rise in Rochester Public Schools and Mayo Clinic, which recently reported that 900 staffers contracted COVID-19 over the past two weeks.
"We have a lot of folks that have relationships (with staff) at Mayo," Stoltman said.
The two-week pause covers the two-day Thanksgiving break and will last until Dec. 7. Public health officials are concerned that families won't heed guidelines to keep Thanksgiving gatherings small, thus causing a continuing spike in infections. How RCTC proceeds after the two weeks end will depend on the situation.
"We may find everything is good and cases have leveled off," Stoltman said. "There is, unfortunately, the possibility that cases continue to rise."
On-campus support services, such as financial aid and registration, will only be available to students online in the first week of the shutdown. The computer lab will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. except for the holiday break. Starting Nov. 30, the start of the second week of the pause, on-campus services will be open again, but with limited staffing.