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Massachusetts Technical High Schools Inching Back to Normal

For technical schools like Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, Mass., adapting to remote learning has been a challenge that required setting aside funding, supplies and shipments for at-home shop lessons.

by Ross Cristantiello, Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. / April 7, 2021
Sophomore multimedia engineering student Cecily Curtis of Belmont, metal fabrication sophomore William Mendez of Lancaster, and history teacher Mike McQuilkin of Minuteman High School work on projects under less than ideal circumstances. Wicked Local

(TNS) — This is the first in a series of stories by Wicked Local Metro exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted vocational technical schools in the region.

Inside one of Minuteman Regional High School's robotics labs, a small group of students gathers around a massive machine. Next to them, Robotics and Automation instructor Tina Collins looks on. The walls around the group are plastered with the blueprints of spaceships. Silently, 3D printers toil away on one side of the room, slowly constructing tiny robotics parts.

Inside the machine at the center of the gathering, green lasers seamlessly etch the Minuteman logo onto wooden cribbage boards. Carpentry students made the board, and were now collaborating with Collins and her robotics students to finish them with the laser machine. Collins and the students laugh as they peer eagerly into the machine, watching tiny lines form on their boards.

With half the student body finally returning to in-person learning on March 1, the Minuteman community is slowly but surely recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The feeling of relief in the air is palpable, Collins said.

"In the beginning it was kind of eerie because there was only 25 percent of our population in. It didn't feel like a real school, it felt like a ghost town," she said. "Now there's much more life."

Before the end of the year, Minuteman Superintendent‑Director Ed Bouquillon expects the vocational school to increase capacity to 75 percent, he said. While a return to normalcy may be in sight, vocational schools like Minuteman and others have had a long and particularly challenging road through the pandemic.

Like most institutions, the region's vocational schools scrambled to adapt when the dangers of COVID became apparent last spring. How does one replicate the hands-on nature of career and technical education (CTE) through an online format?

David DiBarri, superintendent of Northeast Metro Tech in Wakefield, pulled all of the school's 15 shop heads together to discuss how to best replicate the technical education portion of the vocational program for remote students. They organized lists of supplies that would be necessary for at-home shop lessons, set aside funding for them, and have since sent out multiple shipments to students stuck at home, DiBarri said.

In another major undertaking, they came up with a plan to feed students who no longer ate meals every weekday at school, DiBarri said. More than 50 percent of the Northeast Metro Tech student body are part of low-income households, he added.

For weeks, Northeast Metro Tech organized deliveries of breakfast and lunch to students to ensure no one went hungry, DiBarri said. The school also partnered with Route 1 Grillhouse in Saugus to provide daily hot meals to students in need last spring.

At Minuteman, school closures came at a particularly devastating time for the freshmen class. After an onboarding period at the new Minuteman building at the beginning of last year, the students were just starting their foray into CTE shop classes. One week later, remote classes became the norm.

One of those students, now a sophomore, is Jonathan Bradbury of Acton. Bradbury studies Multimedia Engineering. The shop is taught out of a high-tech, three-level facility that doubles both as a screening room with a massive projection screen and a customizable theater for live performances. Bradbury and his peers only had a week or two in the new facility before the shutdown.

"In the old school, we were in a little cramped computer room ... this year, with our weeks that we get to be in, we really use the time well. We have a lot of projects in the bank and even more to make," he said.

Learning hands-on skills through a virtual classroom was difficult for the students, but teachers also struggled to adapt. Minuteman Advanced Manufacturing Instructor Corey Dolan said he had difficulty with the concept at first. Last spring, the necessary but less "exciting" parts of CTE were emphasized online, while both teachers and students anticipated the return to their shops.

"I can't speak for every shop teacher, but for us it seemed impossible at first. We thought, 'You can't teach a kid to weld, or to be a plumber virtually.' But now we've all figured it out," Dolan said. "Since the kids aren't here that much, when you get them it's more of a treat for them. They're a lot more productive, more locked in. All the seemingly boring stuff is done virtually, so when they're here it's just fun."

While fun, the return to school was also a nerve-wracking prospect for Shawsheen Valley Regional Technical High School's Superintendent-Director Brad Jackson. Shawsheen, located in Billerica, has operated an almost entirely hybrid model this year, where every other week students come to school to participate in their shop classes. Of the approximately 1,300 students at Shawsheen Tech, just 50 chose to go full remote this year, Jackson said.

Now, he is looking ahead to a completely full return for students and staff on May 3.

"From Shawsheen's perspective, things changed when the Commissioner put hard dates in place when it came to elementary and middle schools," Jackson said. "I felt when it came to putting our fate in the hands of the commissioner, or take control of our own destiny, we ultimately had to take control of our own destiny."

At Minuteman, a full return this school year is not in the cards simply due to space constraints. Two grades a week are coming to school now, where they participate in fully in-person shop classes and academic courses that still incorporate some students joining via webcam. A jump to 75% capacity will likely come after April break, Bouquillon said.

Despite official guidelines relaxing social distancing to 3 feet instead of 6 in schools, Bouquillon said he still can't safely welcome all Minuteman students back at once. The building was designed for 628 students, and 634 currently are enrolled in the school, he added.

Plans are in the works to expand the school's capacity for next year, and Bouquillon said he expects to have all students be in-person by September.

However, the nature of CTE classes does help limit the spread of COVID. Bouquillon said that, while there have been positive cases reported among Minuteman community, it's been clear that COVID has not been transmitted through the school and that those positive cases came from outside exposure.

"Since we're in a shop, we're kind of in our own little bubble. The most interaction we get is at lunch or on the bus, but we stay here in a nice healthy cluster. If a kid gets sick, they just shut down one shop," Bradbury said.

The specific challenges faced by those at vocational schools will not disappear overnight, and many questions still remain on how to reopen completely. For Bouquillon and others in vocational learning, the pandemic swiped out the very heart of their schools. Recovering from that blow will a crucial step moving forward.

"The way that we learn, the way that we know our kids learn best, we've had to set aside. Remote learning can never replace hands on, experiential learning in a shop," he said. "The purpose of our school has been put on the shelf."

(c)2021 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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