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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Decosimo Apartments resident assistant Madison Matthews, right, helps Lebanon, Tenn., resident Eliza Puckett move into her dorm at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021.

This story has been updated at 10:35 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, to clarify where masks must be worn on campus at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Students are back on campus at a number of colleges in the Chattanooga region, and with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rising, officials are being diligent in protecting students and staff from the virus.

Students start classes this week at Dalton State College in Georgia, and enrollment is expected to be slightly down from recent years.

Dr. Jodi Johnson, vice president for student affairs and enrollment services, said the official enrollment numbers won't be finalized for another few weeks but the school anticipates having just under 5,000 students this fall.

"We anticipate enrollment will be just under 5,000 students, which is similar to what we've seen in recent years," Johnson said in an email. "It appears as though about a third of our students are taking at least one online course. We have offered some online courses for several years, but we are offering fewer sections this year than last year."

Dalton State's campus is fully open this year. Last year the school operated mostly under a hybrid schedule.

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Chattanooga area colleges adapt to prepare for fall semester

Chattanooga State is seeing similar enrollment numbers from last year (6,332 pursuing an undergraduate degree). Of those, 19% of students are taking online-only courses compared to 75% during the fall semester in 2020, according to Nancy Patterson, vice president of college advancement and public relations.

At Cleveland State Community College, about half of the estimated 3,000 students will be learning online in the fall.

Vaccines and masks

Cleveland State will require masks inside all campus buildings. Holly Vincent, communications director, said the school plans to organize a back-to-school promotion "encouraging folks to get vaccinated."

The school also will host two on-campus vaccination clinics on Aug. 23 and 24 in the George L. Mathis Student Center.

Dalton State President Margaret Venable said the administration is "strongly encouraging masks indoors when students, employees and visitors cannot socially distance," and that's "especially" the case for anyone who is unvaccinated.

Venable said there's no way to know how much of the student body is vaccinated, but last week the college was awarded a $3,000 grant from the American College Health Association that will be used to promote vaccination efforts on campus.

"We have two vaccination clinics scheduled on campus for later this fall," said Johnson, the vice president. "The COVID-19 vaccine will be provided along with the flu vaccine."

(READ MORE: A guide for families as children head back to classrooms amid worrying COVID-19 surge)

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is strongly encouraging everyone on campus to be vaccinated and also requiring masks be worn by everyone, regardless of vaccination status, but only in instructional spaces such as classrooms, labs and medical simulation spaces on campus. The school has also announced students and faculty will have full access to every building and space on campus.

Vaccines also are available as students move in, and the University Health Services will be offering ongoing vaccine clinics administering Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots at various times throughout the school year.

Chattanooga State will recommend everyone wear masks based on recent federal guidance and will continue to monitor the situation, Patterson said.

Even though college administrators are navigating a slightly clearer picture ahead of the school year, there still are hurdles to jump and challenges to overcome.

"The last year and a half have been challenging. We know many students – and our employees – prefer in-person instruction and activities, and we are glad to resume classes at full capacity on campus," Venable said. "It takes everyone working together to keep us all safe. We remain committed to the health and safety of our Roadrunners and to the academic success of our students. We will continue to offer the same level of rigorous academics and provide hands-on learning opportunities to help our students meet their goals."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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