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Westmont College prepares to welcome students back for in-person learning in midst of pandemic

Westmont
Tracy Lehr / KEYT

MONTECITO, Calif. -- Westmont College seniors have become resilient just by living on the Montecito campus.

The Class of 2021 survived the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslide and will now enter their final year during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Josie McLaughlin of Chicago said it has brought her class closer together. She said her faith has helped her persevere.

She said she talks to friends online.

"We often have to just breathe and once we realize and remember that we are not the only ones going through it, we are going through this together, it is very unifying in a way and definitely our faith helps."

She said her first year was full of evacuations.

"We have been through a lot, we are so thankful to be here. My class values Westmont because of the past four years through floods, fires through this, we are all very thankful to be here “

Mpho Mthethwa said he is a bit homesick for South Africa but he is also looking forward to seeing classmates again after taking classes online in the spring. He is studying bio chemistry and plans to become a doctor.

He remembers seeing classes outside in the past and looks forward to being in an outdoor classroom.

"The campus is quite lovely, a lot of space," he said.

The 110 acre campus has room for plenty of outdoor classes. The past students to professor ratio was 15-to-1.

The college finished the spring semester with classes on zoom.

If they get a green light from Gov. Newsom orientation for new students will start on August 27, followed by the beginning of the fall semester on August 31.

Westmont President Gayle Beebe's own son will be a senior.

"If the governor allows it, Westmont will welcome students back and the minute they arrive they will be tested to verify they are COVID free and then they will get random tests," Beebe said.

He hopes the Class of 2021 will be able to enjoy a near normal spring and graduation. He also hopes to honor the Class of 2020 during homecoming in October.

"They will look back on their Westmont experience as one of the most pivotal periods of their lives and certainly one that all of history will remember, " said Beebe.

Faculty and staff members have been keeping students and parents informed every step of the way. If all goes well, they will have 1200 students return.

Coincidentally Jason Tavarez, Westmont's new director of institutional resilience, began in February.

Tavarez said they are hiring a firm approved by the state to do the baseline COVID-19 testing when students arrive followed by random population tests during the fall.

He said they will discourage travel and limit visitors.

Dorm rooms will be limited to two students separated by a curtain at first and they will have some Airstreams on campus in case students need to quarantine.

In a sense they will create a bubble without walls.

Tavarez said students may go the grocery store or the beach as long as they practice physical distancing and wear masks.

The staff and students who stayed for summer are already wearing masks with the W for Westment Warriors on them.

It appears the private Christian liberal arts college will hold off on competitive sports, but students have plenty of room to stay fit.

Westmont's Spring 2020 magazine entitled "Interrupted," is hot off the press. It is dedicated to the Class of 2020.

President Beebe writes about all they have been dealing with.

While they are in the midst of COVID-19 he said they have also been addressing racism with fresh eyes, attentive ears and curious spirits.

They will be following health guidance from Santa Barbara County and the state.

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Tracy Lehr

Tracy Lehr is a reporter and the weekend anchor of KCOY|KEYT|KKFX.

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