Career and technical schools cope with pandemic, share optimism about future

·10 min read

Jul. 2—When the covid-19 pandemic extended into the 2020-21 school year, districts had to find a way to safely accommodate students and still deliver quality education.

For career and technical education (CTE) schools, that challenge was multiplied, but as individual schools rose to meet it, they took away plenty of positives and are encouraged by continuing high demand for the students learning in their classrooms.

Working it out

Like other high school seniors forced into some remote learning this school year, Logan Rybarick wasn't happy learning via computer.

Rybarick, 18, of Templeton, recently graduated from Armstrong School District and Lenape Technical School in Manor Township, hands-on learning was essential to learning precision machining.

Career and Technical Education was especially vulnerable during the pandemic when some school districts, while even briefly, closed buildings and offered education only virtually.

"When there was a shut down for a short time — that's where it sucked a little," he said. "You figure it out and just keep going. I took it one day at a time."

Pandemic closures or not, Rybarick didn't suffer too much.

He's already landed a full-time job with benefits at Penn United Technologies in Jefferson, Butler County. Plus, his work as a student will shave off 13 months from the company's four-year apprenticeship program.

"It feels good," Rybarick said, "coming straight out of high school and having a guaranteed job."

For Neil Henehan, director at Mon Valley Career & Technology Center in Charleroi, the biggest challenge was simply working out a class schedule.

"We have six consortium members and one, Belle Vernon, that's outside the consortium," he said. "So, we were running seven different schedules in our building, and we were really struggling for consistency."

At Central Westmoreland CTC in New Stanton, the largest career and technology school in the western half of Pennsylvania, administrative Director Jason Lucia and his staff were juggling 10 different school schedules.

At Eastern Westmoreland CTC in Latrobe, which serves three districts, Director Todd Weimer said this year's seniors lost about 115 common instructional days.

"The large majority of work they did from home was theory-based," Weimer said. "We did work diligently to extend some of the hands-on work they'd do at school. We had instructors sending kits home for students to work with. And they were able to do simulated labs using the technology we provided. But the reality is, they did a lot of theory."

For programs like graphic communications, digital media and computer engineering, the transition to school-at-home was much more straightforward.

At the A.W. Beattie Career Center in Hampton, executive Director Eric Heasley said students were supplied with as much material as possible to work from home when it was required.

"We had culinary and pastry arts students cooking at home, and we were able to deliver supplies to them as well as to our carpentry students," Heasley said. "And we were still able to have students working toward industry certification."

A January survey from the national Association for Career and Technical Education of its member teachers, faculty and other professionals, found 74% of members said they were much less or a little less effective at providing hands-on learning this year.

The success of the CTE students is highly varied across geography and industries, said Catherine Imperatore, the association's research manager and author of "High-quality CTE during covid-19: Challenges and Innovations."

Generally, the pandemic was difficult for CTE programs because hands-on work was harder to deliver during the pandemic, she said.

And even though CTE schools generally have lower enrollment than a high school and are able to more easily space students out, the hands-on nature of many CTE disciplines still presented a challenge.

"How do you have four students trying to troubleshoot an engine six feet apart from one another?" Henehan asked. "We were very cautious about group work and made sure students had the tools to work independently if they needed to."

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which operates its own in-house CTE program, the challenge was greater.

"We were in complete remote learning," executive Director Angela Mike said. "You can't change brakes from home. But we were able to brainstorm and secure grant funding that supported us in getting some hands-on learning."

The Northern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in New Kensington had 100 graduates this year and serves the New Kensington-Arnold School District, Kiski Area, Burrell and Franklin Regional.

Their students' national assessment scores were down by about 6% from last year, said Kurt Kiefer, center director.

"I believe that, although we were open the whole time, we had to social distance and that slowed the education process," Kiefer said. For example, students had to wait for their turn at machines because of pandemic requirements.

But the dip in assessment scores didn't trouble Kiefer too much. "Our kids are in good shape," he said. "Some already had jobs set up before they graduated."

Pandemic positives

At Mon Valley CTC, Henahan said his students lost roughly five weeks' worth of instruction due to covid. But, over the course of the pandemic, and particularly when students came back into the building, school officials learned a few lessons they will carry into the future.

"On the tool side, we built carts and have mobile tool rooms," Henahan said. "We'd separate the carts for different sections of the program, whether it was culinary or cosmetic, to limit the number of people touching the same tools. And we'd do a mid-day disinfection of all the tools every day."

At the end of a class session, all tools would be returned and each student group had a "tool manager," who would snap a photo of the completed cart and fill out a short Google form accessed through a QR code on the cart.

And while it was originally conceived as a health-and-safety measure, Henahan said it turned out to be a fantastic way to keep track of tools and ensure they don't get lost or misplaced.

"We're definitely going to be moving forward with that management system, because it worked really well," he said. "It's great shop management, we just never thought of it before the pandemic."

At Central Westmoreland, Lucia said the pandemic finally spurred the school to put a digital education delivery system in place.

"We were tiptoeing toward it, but now it's a must, and we were able to integrate it fully into our CTE education model," he said. "Students will have technology in their hands all the time, and can be more prepared to walk through the door and focus on skills performance, rather than having to spend so much time working in a lecture-style setting."

The pandemic also shined a spotlight on the importance of CTE disciplines as an economic driver.

"Our enrollment for next year is at a three-decade high," Heasley said of Beattie. "We'll have more than 900 students next year, and I can honestly say that we have more job offers for students than we have students."

Heasley said the trade jobs market in the Pittsburgh area is "pretty robust. Our cosmetology students who have finished their statewide certification exams are working. My last two haircuts were from former graduates, and they both said they're just as busy as they were before the pandemic."

With vaccination rates climbing ever higher and more businesses reopening, Henehan said there's little reason for pessimism among culinary and cosmetology students, many of whom spent their Christmas break watching news stories about restaurants and salons closing their doors with no idea when they might reopen.

"As things open back up now, there's a little more optimism about the market," Henehan said. "In our school, there haven't been any students who have changed their career path because of the pandemic."

Looking to the future

Even with advances in the way they deliver education, CTE administrators acknowledged that some students have struggled, and they want to provide opportunities for those students to continue learning.

"We are looking at offering some extension into the summer," Lucia said of Central Westmoreland. "Cosmetology is a big one — you have to have so many hours, 1,250, to sit for your state cosmetology test. The state did offer kind of an internship, which is in its infancy, where we have students working at an actual salon, and they can get up to 350 hours of that approved."

At Beattie, Heasley said automotive students were able to finish their state testing and certification once they returned to the building.

"When school's out, we'll do some classwork with robotics and cosmetology, carpentry and construction," Heasley said. "Some of our students will have access to online resources this summer for independent study."

Mike said Pittsburgh Public officials will open up Brashear High School over the summer to hold classes.

"Through (state) grant funding, we are offering some programs the opportunity to come back over the summer," she said.

For many CTE administrators, the digital tools they were forced to employ over the past 15 months have become a valuable tool.

"Our goal next year, in an ideal world, will be to have 180 full days in-person," Weimer said. "But we'll continue as we have this year when we came back to full brick-and-mortar, incorporating the use of tools like Schoology, Chromebooks, iPads, things like that. Now that we have the kids trained, we want them to be ready at the drop of a hat, whether it's a pandemic, a snow day, whatever."

Some CTE students will look to continue their education at a technical school like Rosedale Technical College in Robinson.

Educational outreach Manager Sean Barrett said the difficulties some students experienced during the pandemic are not likely to hamper their continuing technical education.

"A lack of hands-on experience isn't that big an issue for us," Barrett said. "We have a lot of students who come in with zero experience."

And if CTE graduates are headed straight to the job market, Lucia said they are in a good position.

"From what I've seen the last couple months, there is such a shortage for entry-level employees that I do believe our students will have immediate access to employment if they pursue it," he said, adding that Central Westmoreland has fielded calls from a number of regional companies looking for students willing to work as interns or to earn CTE credits.

"There's a big need out there," he said.

Heasley said many Beattie students already are working during their time in high school, and that even employers outside the region have reached out about graduate placement.

"In the last two weeks or so, I've seen three or four HVAC companies, two carpentry companies and two restaurants that reached out, and those are programs where students are already working," he said.

Weimer said time will tell how the pandemic has affected CTE education.

"Locally, the jobs are still there," he said. "Right now, we have 35 upperclassmen in cooperative education and more going out."

Eastern Westmoreland does an annual placement study nine months after graduation, tracking student progress whether at a technical school or the workforce.

"One of our lower placement rates from last year's graduates was in the food and beverage industry," he said. "But a number of variables play into that, certainly including less opportunity because of the pandemic. But, I think in the next couple years, we'll get a good feel for how the pandemic changed things."

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