Corrected: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Minuteman High School. It is in Lexington, Mass.
In Indiana, with schools across the state shut down, high school senior Brandon Gater queues for a temperature check on his way to carpentry work at an expansion in progress at the Lutheran Hospital in downtown Fort Wayne. In Lexington, Mass., senior Robbie Finnegan coordinates with homeowners by phone to maintain a safe distance as he checks their solar panels outside. And in nearby Worcester, freshman Andrew Stanley readies a tissue sample slide for analysis, unmasked but sanitized in a pathology lab.
All three high school students are juggling online career education and “essential” jobs at a time when their own schools are closed to in-person classes. Amid coronavirus outbreaks, they represent a key opportunity for career and technical programs to identify students’ needs during the pandemic for planning next fall.
Career education was on the upswing before the coronavirus prompted school closures. President Donald Trump’s February budget plan, which proposed a $4.7 billion cut for K-12 programs overall, asked for an additional $680 million for the $2 billion state career and technical education grants.
And while the pandemic has buffeted school programs across the board, it has complicated the renaissance for career education. States were expected to finalize plans by this April to align programs with requirements for the reauthorized federal vocational education law, and many states and districts have responded with industry-based “career pathways” that integrate core academic subjects and technical knowledge over years. Not only must educators now adapt classes heavily dependent on laboratory and hands-on work to social distancing and remote learning, but in many cases, they must rethink whole programs to prepare students for a terrible job market after graduation. As they plan for career education going forward, they are learning from students who already are acting as “essential workers” during the crisis.
“We’re trying to structure CTE in a way where we’re preparing students for jobs that don’t exist,” said Daniel Spinka, arts and media career-technical education coach in California’s Oakland Unified school district, which enrolls more than 6,600 students in grades 10-12 across 36 high school career pathways. “And that’s a challenge, but that was a challenge that we were addressing before [coronavirus]. In our region specifically, an industry can get totally shifted overnight with the invention of new technology. And CTE in general has had to adapt for the last several years now because we can see huge shifts in demand for an industry.”
Finnegan, 18, was working 35 hours a week for both pay and course credit in the engineering pathway at Minuteman High School in Lexington, Mass., before the coronavirus hit. He was among about 25 percent of students who were able to continue their work-study in essential jobs. He is performing maintenance and troubleshooting on home solar panels in eastern Massachusetts and said he knew how to don masks, gloves, and other protective gear from a safety course required for all work-study students. The school is working to find ways for the remaining students to recover work-study hours later.
Now that the school has moved entirely to remote learning, Finnegan has upped his work schedule to five days a week, working with teachers to complete his school assignments at night.
“It’s a lot harder to work from home. This is all completely new, a lot of pdfs of worksheets and simulations. Even in a Zoom call, it’s not like going to see a teacher face-to-face,” Finnegan said. But he said he was thankful for the safety training and knowing that the school could provide protective equipment if he needed it. “I feel very lucky. It’s incredible to still have an essential job in this economy.”
More than a dozen states have changed their requirements for career education work study to help programs adapt. States, including Alabama, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota, directed districts to waive some or all their required work-study hours, while Maryland suggested students could continue to accrue work experience after the school year and Ohio suggested students could telework if their employers allowed it.
Yet educators are still uncertain how their programs will fare in the long term.
“We’re planning for the worst, you know, believing that we’re still going to be socially distancing, believing that there’s going to be some integration of on-site school learning with e-learning, … assuming there’s going to be no sports, no work-based learning,” said Edward Bouquillon, the superintendent-director of the career-tech high school that Finnegan and Stanley attend, less than 10 miles away from a major COVID-19 outbreak in Boston. The school is already adapting labs to space out students, setting health procedures, and planning schedules to split students into online and live courses when school re-opens.
“If we’re only having half the kids in the school at one time, it’ll just take that much longer to get through the training. But it’s the only way we can do it safely and still stay connected with them, still give them hands-on experiences and the opportunity to get proficient,” he said.
“We have some extremely hands-on classes,” said Chad Sutton, the director of career development at Garrett Keyser Butler School in Indiana, Gater’s school.
Gater said he benefited from one lab, where students could work on a full-scale house, performing various tasks. That program was set to expand this year, as a family donated land to the school, where students in the construction programs would have been designing and building a new subdivision of homes from scratch. Now that expansion is up in the air, as educators try to plan how closely students can work near each other, what protective gear they will need, and what rules will apply to students learning “essential” fields.
“We’re waiting for direction from the governor, the state superintendent, our superintendent,” Sutton said, “but you would think that we would be able to come up with something where the majority of the work these students do is outside and we can make sure that social distancing is going on.”
The school has allowed Gater and other students to take part-time jobs in essential fields during remote learning, as long as they and their parents said they were comfortable with the potential health risks, but it has not reopened its official work-study program.
When Minuteman moved to remote learning in March, Andrew Stanley had started his spring schedule of alternating weeks of biotech shop work and class instruction. Teachers were able to move instruction online within a few days and began providing simulations to replace labs, but Andrew felt the loss of the foundational hands-on labs. As soon as he turned 16, he and his father, veterinary pathologist James Stanley, worked with the school to allow Andrew to take a part-time job at a Worcester histopathology lab, while completing school classes and assignments in mornings and late evenings.
“In biotech, which is my shop, it’s not really possible to do what we do there over the internet,” Andrew said. “We still do a lot of research into different science and we have talks, but you know, we don’t really get to do that many experiments. That’s a big reason I’m working at my dad’s lab. I’m not looking to go into pathology … but the lab work gives me good experience.”
Spinka has centered Oakland’s career-education program on 21st century skills that could help students in any career field. The district is considering paying teachers to come in for planning and retraining over the summer. “We’re having to really map out what [CTE] looks like in practice, you know, what do we want the students to experience in this space. What are the adults going to need to do? What do the teachers need?”
Gater, 18, said that while he greatly appreciated his hands-on construction work, he felt more “online compatible” skills at his own school helped prepare him, too: “I’ve enjoyed it a lot. The program taught me a lot of stuff, not just technical skills but soft skills as well, like first impressions, handshakes, speaking clearly. That’s important on the job too.”
A New Job Market
Seniors will be leaving career education programs and entering the worst job market since the Great Depression, with more than 20.5 million Americans out of work by the end of April. Yet across the board, career-educators argued their programs are in some cases seeing rising interest.
“Definitely, the economy has taken a hit,” said Anne Kress, the president of Northern Virginia Community College, which enrolls nearly 10,000 students in its high school career-education and dual-credit programs, “but I think what’s interesting is when you lift up those unemployment numbers, below the surface, what you’ll see in Virginia is that the fields we’re talking about, whether it’s installation, maintenance and repair, or health care and other technical-education pathways, are seeing the lowest job losses.”
The pandemic is already boosting some career pathways, Kress said. This spring, the Virginia college system has had an increase in students applying for its health care program, and it has been working to provide medical simulations for students who would normally have had clinical internships at local hospitals.
“One of the things we’ve been looking at is there’s probably a need going forward to increase the augmented-reality aspect of the curriculum so that we can give students some in-classroom experiences that need to prepare them for what they will see in their clinical status,” Kress said.
“We see that there is a huge need for health care workers out there in clinical settings, so we want to make sure that we can partner with our hospitals to find out when students come back into that clinical site,” Kress said.
Sutton also suggested the pandemic and resulting program overhauls could lead to a renaissance in some trade-related career-education pathways that had fallen out of favor before the pandemic.
“I’ll never say that [the pandemic] was a good thing because it’s not, but the world and everybody in the United States is starting to recognize that these students and these industries are essential,” Sutton said. “Construction, architects, engineering and design, all the programs that we really work with … those are going to be recession-proof industries for a long time.”
The crisis also has encouraged many programs to structure student projects around community needs. Several of Oklahoma’s career education programs have shifted to community service projects, such as manufacturing and design programs using 3-D printers to create masks and other equipment for essential workers, or health programs loaning out their ventilators to local hospitals, according to Paula Bowles, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma’s state career-education agency.
“It’s pushing anybody’s envelope a little bit to look at things through a common lens,” Bouquillon said. “When we have to force ourselves outside of the building, we have to go online and we have to have conversations we haven’t been comfortable having, we see goodness coming out of that. It reduces your fear. It gives you a better purpose. And I think we’re all going to grow from that.”