Flexibility frames career and technical education during COVID

Students in the culinary arts program at Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School are spaced far apart for in-class training. PHOTO/BETHLEHEM AREA VOCATIONAL TECHNICAL SCHOOL

How do you teach auto mechanics, health sciences or culinary arts without being side-by-side, or face-to-face with a pro?

As businesses adapted to virtual meetings, closing deals, showing real estate and offering health care services career and vocational school programs quickly discovered the best ways to navigate the coronavirus pandemic by offering hand-on instruction in different ways. 

“You can’t repair an engine or brakes at home,” said Adam Lazarchak, Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School director.

There are plenty of ways to learn and creative ways to do it. From offering hybrid in person and online combinations to sending students home with kits to practice skills where they live. Zoom classes, and online platforms have proved mighty partners, too. 

Constance Corrigan, dean of health sciences at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, said online platforms like Zoom and Canvas were essential during first seven weeks of the pandemic.

Students preparing to graduate from the Licensed Practical Nurse program in June did not appear to be harmed by the change in instruction, with graduation rates at an exceptional 94%,” Corrigan said.

“The [online] simulation did not harm them in any way,” she said, and demand for placement in the program continues to exceed the number of spots each year.

Because incoming students to the BCCC fall semester did not have hospital access for the first few weeks, teachers set up “model patient rooms for demonstrations” in their own homes and created demonstration classrooms online.

“Faculty were creative and being inventive, and they really stepped up,” Corrigan said.

Lazarchak said Bethlehem leaned heavily on hybrid instruction – some in person and some virtual – staggering the number of students in attendance throughout the week.

Along with other schools, Bethlehem capitalized on the natural, staggered flow of students in buildings to keep capacity at 50% or less, and socially distance as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the culinary program, instructors move about to observe and evaluate students, who are well spaced in the facility to allow for real time hands-on learning. “You don’t have to be working on top of each other to learn techniques and knife skills,” Lazarchak said

Some programs, such as cosmetology, are using more mannequins to teach hair salon service techniques because school clinics are closed. 

Extra student automotive shop kits at Bethlehem have been funded by the state and local education grants so tools don’t have to be shared between students, a common practice prior to the pandemic. Cosmetology students practice skills on more mannequins now, from two to as many as five, thanks to the grants. 

Recent fair weather also allowed outdoor class and break time where the risk of transmission has been proved to be lower. 

“Some programs will still do that, weather permitting, and a lot of our shops have large garage doors with outside access for breaks,” Lazarchak said.

Social distancing and mask wearing outdoors appears to substantially lower the risk for coronavirus transmission, according to a recent article in The New York Times

Hybrid classes

Larissa Verta, vice president for academics and student development at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville said face-to-face classes continued there this fall with 171 sections and 12 hybrid sections alternating between in-person and Zoom instruction.

“For spring we have 207 sections planned with 73 hybrid sections,” Verta said.

Rigorous facility reviews, social distancing measurements and occupancies based upon those calculations, allowed roughly half of enrolled students to attend class on campus at a time.

She said some chemistry labs, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning [HVAC], electronics, advanced manufacturing, kitchen and bath construction and culinary arts programs all include face-to-face lab and skills training classes.

When students test positive for the virus they are learning remotely and accommodations have been made to keep them from falling behind, Verta said.

“It wasn’t a lost semester for those who tested positive,” Verta said.

A positive experience

While the abrupt shift to online learning was initially challenging, overall it has been a positive experience. “We never did any remote work [previously,] it was always face-to-face,” and adding online access could open education to more students, she said.

Increased student participation has been a benefit of 2020. Virtual attendance for both staff and students has made attending classes easier and more convenient.

“Even faculty meetings attendance is higher because they don’t have to drive in to attend them,” Verta said.

Some programs have increased enrollment.

Offering more “synchronous” classes, which are live virtual platforms, has made learning more engaging and attractive because participation is real time. Software programs, such as a simulation used for HVAC students, provide additional hands on experience in a virtual environment.

Verta said some teachers come to campus and teach from empty classrooms to take advantage of whiteboards and other college supplies, while students attend virtually. 

She said the demand for LCCC support services has increased dramatically, including course counseling. 

LCCC teachers and staff have plans in place so students who are struggling with content, or the manner in which they are learning, don’t get left behind.

In addition to tutoring “recitation” coaches, who provide students guidance to complete learning objectives and reinforce course content will be available. 

Virtual learning will outlast pandemic

Efforts to continue the hybrid experience beyond the pandemic are in planning. When in-person attendance is more normalized students will continue to have a virtual attendance option. 

LCCC will pilot a KanDao 3D system for transmitting virtual classes. Verta did not say when the pilot will begin.

“KanDao captures the faculty member teaching and if we have students in the classroom you can have another group of students at home using the remote software,” Verta said.

The system aims to create a high quality “immersive” online experience, increasing audio capabilities and offering the viewer a true 360 degree visual experience with enhanced audio. 

 “The apparatus is powered so everyone can hear and see clearly and participate regardless of their location,” she said.