Hands-on learning suffers in shadow of COVID


As area schools look for the best course of action for the start of the 2020-2021 school year, vocational and technical schools have a unique challenge: how to teach hands-on learning during a national pandemic under social distancing guidelines.
Union County districts are serviced by three career tech schools in neighboring counties: Ohio Hi-Point Career Center in Logan County, Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion County and Tolles Career and Technical Center in Madison County.
In addition to reworking safety and sanitation protocols, superintendents at each school have had to navigate communication with a variety of health officials in multiple counties among other issues.
Ohio Hi-Point Career Center plans to divide up days for juniors and seniors but superintendent Rick Smith said plans have to accommodate situations in neighboring counties.
“Logan County is where our primary health department guidelines come from but we serve 14 school districts in five counties,” Smith said. “We have to have flexible plans as anything could change at any time.”
As it stands, Hi-Point officials plan to bring their students to their main campus (the school also teaches 50 different programs to students at satellite campuses in and out of the county) every other day of the week.
“Juniors will be here Monday and Wednesday, seniors on Tuesday and Thursday and Friday will be an alternative day,” Smith said. “We will have all-day labs as we want to have the focus on career tech.”
Smith said the plan is to have all academic course work done online.
“This is done partly because we think we can be more consistent in our response regardless of another county’s color,” he said, referring to the Ohio Department of Health’s color-coded map of COVID-19 cases and severity. “We’ve had districts coming from counties of all colors.”
Ohio Hi-Point is planning to have juniors return on Aug. 24, seniors Aug. 27 and the week of Aug. 31 would begin the Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday schedule.
Tolles is also dealing with several different counties with a majority of Tolles students coming from a county that has seen the highest cases of COVID-19 in the state.
“Primarily we are responsible for meeting the guidelines set forth by Madison County Public Health here at Tolles. That is our home county,” said Emmy Beeson, the school’s superintendent. “But we have more than 50% of our students at Tolles coming from Franklin County.”
The career tech school south of Plain City serves students from seven different school districts from Union, Madison and Franklin counties.
“All of the districts have been very cooperative in all this but decisions do not come easy,” Beeson said. “On a positive note, despite all the difficulties with this planning process, we’ve still been able to place kids in internships.”
Beeson said the school has partnered with more than 100 employers who have been willing to work with students and allow them some real-world or on-the-job training—an aspect of the career tech education school officials were concerned might not happen during the pandemic.
Tolles has not made a final decision yet in their model for the 2020-21 school year. The decision will be made Friday at the district’s board meeting, Beeson said.
“We’ll be giving parents a three-week notice which we know is not ideal. We should’ve known in June,” she added. “We just want parents to know we’re doing everything we can to do the best thing possible for the kids.”
Beeson said Tolles has three scenarios outlined for the start of the year and would have a day set aside for juniors and one for seniors. A blended level one scenario would see 50% of students in the building for morning lab/career tech time and afternoon classes would focus more on academic work. The rest of the week would have classes done remotely.
A blended level two would see 25% of students in the building for labs and all academic work would be done online. A third scenario would be to see students going completely to remote learning.
Tolles is planning for an Aug. 24 start date, moved back three days from the original return date.
Tri-Rivers in Marion is planning for a similar focus on career tech, but similar to Tolles, would use half the school day for labs and half dedicated to academic course work.
Tri-Rivers superintendent, Charles Speelman, oversees students from nine different school districts including North Union.
“Like any other K-12 school, we have concerns of safety for students and staff, but I think tech schools are in a unique position to handle this,” he said. “For starters, we train essential and frontline workers.”
Speelman said the school’s focus on hands-on learning and training students on various pieces of equipment has made the conversation around returning to in-person classes tricky.
“We’re doing everything we can—following all the possible protocols—to keep from there being a problem,” he added. “Like anywhere else, we just don’t know, but we have plans in place if things go awry.”
Speelman said the school is returning this year but in a hybrid model with students coming to the building every other day.
Students will see a mixture of online and in-person learning. As the plan illustrates, only 300 of the school’s 600-plus students will actually be in the building at the same time and will see changes to how the day operates.
“Every student will be issued a mask and those neck gators that go all the way around your neck,” Speelman said. “There will be shields at desks and we have it worked out so everyone will be facing the same direction.”
The school also has a nurse on staff and in the building as well as a variety of healthcare professionals in the building as teachers.
“In many ways, career tech schools might be ahead of the game given the fact that we’re training students who have to go out into the world,” Speelman said. “We have students here that for a time and because of what they do, have been the family’s sole source of income with both parents being home. I’m sure students at other career centers have been in similar situations.”
Tri-Rivers is planning for an Aug. 20 start date.
All three school officials said their respective schools have plans in place for a heightened cleaning and sanitation response from adding mandated daily cleaning times, to disinfecting machines to checking temperatures and requiring masks for all students. All three schools also plan to run these initial models for learning at least until Labor Day at which point school officials will reevaluate where each district stands.

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