UPTON – Connor McNamara, 17, watched the towering piece of equipment he programmed to make a chessboard Tuesday morning, as it whirred, drilled, and cast piles of white shavings onto the floor.
The day was one of about four per month when McNamara and his classmates have on-site classes at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, under coronavirus safety precautions.
“Despite remote learning, I am on track,” the advanced manufacturing and fabrication student said, noting that a lot of his study, like learning coding, doesn’t require him to practice on the machine regularly. “All of our textbooks were previously online to begin with.”
A room over, in a heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration shop class, 17-year-old Nick Loschiavo didn’t feel the same optimism.
“It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing,” said Loschiavo, troubleshooting a faulty heat pump on one of his few days in school Tuesday. “I want everything to go back to normal. … How can you learn four days a month?”
The region’s trade schools face a unique, shared challenge as they reopen this fall. With an ongoing battle against the coronavirus pandemic necessitating social distancing and remote learning, school officials and teachers must figure out how to deliver the hands-on experience for which trade schools are known, and on which so many of their students rely.
“There’s no substitute for the in-person contact with students,” BVT Superintendent-Director Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick said, adding he has asked his instructors to use equipment at the school even when teaching online. “There’s literally millions of dollars’ worth of training devices here. You’re in a far better situation to demonstrate how something functions if you can include it in person or in the video.”
Trade school leaders across the state have been working together over the last few months to come up with ideas for educating during the pandemic.
“This whole topic had been quite challenging for all of the career technical schools in the state,” BVT Principal Anthony Steele II said.
Many technical schools opted for a hybrid model, in which students get some time in the buildings, but remote learning helps keep the number of students inside low enough to ensure social distancing.
“Things are going well so far,” Fitchburg’s Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School Superintendent-Director Sheila Harrity said. “There truly was no playbook in regards to how to create these plans. … We’ve had to obviously re-examine everything we do with safety in mind.”
Some schools, like Monty Tech, use in-person days for both academics and shop classes. Others, like BVT, relegated academics to remote learning until it’s safer to invite more students inside more often.
“We dedicated all of the in-person learning that we have to the hands-on component,” Steele said. “That is the major distinction that our school has in comparison to a comprehensive school. We felt it was appropriate to dedicate all of that in-person time to that.”
Required to go remote-only
In Framingham, Joseph P. Keefe Regional Technical School landscape design instructor Doug Paul is finally swapping his flip phone for a smartphone.
“What we’ve had to do … is really kind of embrace the technology,” he said. “I haven’t needed a lot of the technology until COVID.”
Rising COVID-19 cases in Framingham have earned the city the state’s highest risk category classification, and Keefe Tech, as well Framingham Public Schools, began the year fully remote.
“It’ll be a modified schedule, but our kids will be working with their teachers every day,” Keefe Tech Superintendent-Director Jonathan Evans said, adding the year’s shop classes will begin with things that can be taught remotely, like tool awareness and safety protocols. “We’re hopeful, if this is a short period of time, we will be able to get some of the preparation for the year (completed remotely).”
Like many teachers, Paul quickly realized he had to learn a handful of computer programs that usually have very little to do with his career area, just to connect with his students remotely. He and other teachers will also be shooting instructional videos from the field – for Paul, he means that literally.
“The kids aren’t going to be inspired by seeing me in my kitchen,” he said. “I’m going to be doing videos on the seat of a tractor. I’m going to be doing videos as I actually perform the work myself.”
Avoiding screen fatigue
A glimpse through the window of a closed door at BVT Tuesday showed a lone teacher at his desk in an otherwise empty room, headphones in, talking animatedly to his computer screen.
School leaders say their remote learning has grown since the emergency closure of school buildings in the spring. Live teacher-to-student time is augmented by demonstration videos available to watch anytime and assigned reading, as well as projects away from the computer.
“One of those concerns is just screen fatigue,” Steele said. “You really need to mix it up and do more than just Zoom all day. … There’s only so much online videoconferencing one can take in one day.”
Schools are sending materials home with students for hands-on projects to be completed at home. For Paul’s students, that could mean soil and seeds to grow something at home, or starter materials for learning to compost. Steele said students focused on wiring or electronics might receive the components of a circuit board to assemble at home.
“We have tons of material we can learn online,” 16-year-old BVT culinary arts student Carter Beard said, noting he can learn and work on cooking techniques remotely. “I don’t really need to be here to learn that.”
Some programs require students put in a certain number of hours before working on a live person or earning a needed certification. Steele said schools have been negotiating with licensing boards.
“In our view it’s never enough,” Steele said, of getting students as much hands-on experience as possible. “If COVID never came along, I’d still like to get them more hours.”
Getting experience in the field with co-ops
Some seniors, many of whom are about to graduate and head into careers, can get hands-on, real-world experience through co-ops, partnerships with local businesses in which students work in their field of choice.
“We plan on certainly getting our students out to work,” Harrity said. “Those industries are also following Commonwealth protocol (for virus safety), and at the same time we’re minimizing the number of students in our building.”
Seniors are the students with the least amount of time to wait out the end of the pandemic, or make up for time lost during fully remote schooling in the spring.
“With some additional documentation and guidelines, we are going to be able to allow our students to go out and (work) in the community,” Evans said. “They could do that job five days a week.”
That wasn’t something schools were sure they could provide students until recently, particularly in areas like child or health care.
“Given the situation right now, we really like seeing students in a well-placed co-op … because we know its virtually all hands-on at that point,” said Steele.
In fact, Steele said, BVT took some pointers from industries who had to adapt to coronavirus-related restrictions all summer, from each person having his or her own tools to cleaning workstations after each use.
At Monty Tech, Harrity said students will adopt some contactless pickups and drop-offs popularized during the pandemic. When students work on staff cars, for example, the staff member leaves the keys in the car at an appointed place and time, instead of in-person exchanges.
Keeping a safe distance
“I kind of like it,” 16-year-old HVAC student Chloe Botelho said Tuesday at BVT, of working at a distance from her fellow classmates. “I think it makes us more focused when we’re separated or doing our own thing.”
School leaders admit some collaboration is lost. Freshmen used to try out shops alongside juniors at BVT, learning from the teachers as well as the upperclassmen. Though that in-person mentorship isn’t happening, the school is trying to introduce a similar element remotely. Then there are the skills that are difficult to master in a socially distant way.
“They have to be able to work next to each other,” culinary arts instructor Matt Williams said, of learning to work in a professional kitchen. “I could probably teach you how to make a rice pilaf over Zoom. I can’t teach you how to move around the kitchen.”
Still, programs are finding creative ways to get students experience when distancing from potential customers poses a problem.
Back at BVT Tuesday, 16-year-old culinary arts student Noah Turcotte eased trays of individually wrapped pastries into a lighted display case in the school’s restaurant. A few feet away, culinary arts instructor Kathleen Manoogian prepped a handful of students for the restaurant’s first day open, to staff only, and in a take-out format.
“This is 100% different because we’re not open to the public,” Manoogian said.
To give students the experience prepping food, she hopes to offer a meal kit service to staff, where students will prepare the individual ingredients of a meal, which customers can pick up and assemble at home.
Waiting for the green light to reopen fully
Overwhelmingly, trade school officials, teachers, and students in the region said they are grateful for the instruction they have, proud to see teachers and students step up to new challenges, and cognizant of the improvement since the spring.
School plans are contingent on the public health situation in their communities. Officials say they hope to get students back into their buildings more often as quickly as is safe.