Chef and professor John Dion’s hot food class is one of the only in-person courses happening on a college campus in Rhode Island right now. On a recent July day, students, in aprons, caps -- and yes --  masks, were learning about heat transfer through braising, searing and steaming. 

“What we got is a nice piece of pork shoulder. It’s a little frozen,” Dion explained to his class. “You’ve got to be careful when you’re working with frozen meat, cause your hands are going to be touching it.” 

Hands are going to be touching practically everything in culinary school: knives, spoons, mixing bowls, oven doors. To the untrained eye, it may not be clear how different this lab looks compared to life pre-COVID.

But there are many new safety restrictions in place: the class size has been reduced from 18 to 14, foot traffic goes one way, prep stations are socially distanced and protected by plexi-glass dividers. Students have a strict handwashing schedule - every 30 minutes -- and as you can hear, the kitchen hoods sucking air out of the room are turned up to full blast. 

“I’m old school,” said Dion, who’s been at Johnson and Wales for decades. “Cooking is very touchy, feely, tactile. It’s hard not tasting on the fly sometimes.”

With the new precautions in place, he says he feels safe. 

But no amount of planning can account for humanity. On the day I visited, students and professors were still working out the new system. Face-masks fell down, pots that were handled almost went back onto the shelf, students stood close when watching a demonstration. In one classroom, an instructor forgot the plexiglass shields.

“Honestly it’s a constant evolution, and it’s just a constant educational reminder,” said Bridget Sweet, director of food safety at the university. Her job went from helping the school maintain food code standards, to creating new systems to stem the spread of COVID in the culinary classes. 

“They’re washing their prep tables and then they’re sanitizing their prep tables. So that’s always happened before COVID,” Sweet said. “But we’re doing it more frequently as a precaution. So that’s just sanitizer not disinfection. The disinfection will happen at the end of this class, and they’ll do all the high touch surface areas.” 

Sweet and other administrators hope these stringent new standards will be enough to keep the global pandemic off this campus. But cases of COVID continue to surge across the nation. This month, the number of Rhode Islanders who have died due to the illness surpassed 1,000. 

Those facts are not lost on students or staff here.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Richard Miscovich, the chair of the baking department. “No one’s thrilled about anything. It’s kind of, how do you feel going to the grocery store? I would prefer not to have to do that as well.”

When Johnson and Wales sent its students home in mid-March -- classes like his were cancelled outright. Other, less hands-on courses continued online. But his kind of class - making bread and pastry - simply cannot be recreated over the computer. Miscovich’s students were offered the chance to return to make up the lab courses. 

“We’re really glad to be back to work and we’re really glad to have people’s education going on,” Miscovich said. “It’s great to bake again. I would say any outside world concerns are on the inside world concerns.” 

In a way, this is a pilot project for the school -- proof that strict new policies can keep people healthy and safe. The university is still working out how many students will return in the fall. But Providence campus president Marie Bernardo-Sousa says in-person learning is critical, both for finances and the quality of the education offered.

“There's absolutely a financial reality to having our students return to campus,” said Bernardo-Sousa. “And we also know that there's kind of this emotional connection that college students have to their campus rights. So they really want to be back. So that's critically important to us from a financial perspective, but also, I think, in fulfilling our mission.”

When they do arrive, they’ll be required to self-assess for symptoms every day. Students coming from so-called hot spots, are already being tested and required to isolate. According to the President -- of the more than 500 students currently on campus -- there has been just one positive case of COVID so far, and that student was tested prior to their arrival at school. 

But many college students remain skeptical that any campus can be safe. Rising Johnson and Wales sophomore Layla Bassey finished her culinary labs before the shutdown, and was glad she didn’t have to return to campus early.

From her home in Indianapolis, she’s watching how the summer session unfolds as she prepares for her own return east. Bassey said she did think about taking time off, but decided she couldn’t afford to do so. 

“I definitely think right now there’s not an opportunity for taking time off,” said Bassey. “Just because, one, financial aid for sure, but also, I do want to stick with my track and getting done with school in the four years.” 

If Bassey does return in September, she’ll be one of the more than 6,000 undergraduates on a very different campus. One without big gatherings, or close quarters, and she - like thousands of other students -- will need to decide if it’s worth it.