North Carolina Career Tech Students Need Hands-On Learning

After months of online instruction, career-tech students in Guilford County Schools are hoping to return to the in-person classes and tools they need to develop skills and receive industry certifications.

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(TNS) — Andrew Prine has a well-stocked workshop at home, so he had a chance to start practicing his carpentry class skills during remote learning.

But for fellow Weaver Academy junior Kyndall Miller, hands-on learning this school year didn't start until early March, when he and Prine and other high school upperclassmen resumed in-person instruction a couple of days a week.

Before then, he watched the instructor's videos, same as Prine, but was left itching to try it out for himself.

"Once I got into the shop and actually used some of the tools, learning became easier," Miller said.

The COVID-19 pandemic radically altered education for students. During school board meetings, district leaders have frequently discussed the likelihood that many students would fall behind in subjects like English, math and science as a result of months of remote learning and that they would need help to get back on track.

But there's a group of students for whom classroom learning has been even harder to replicate over the Internet: those enrolled in hands-on, tech-heavy courses with school-based equipment. That's the case for many students taking career-tech classes at Weaver Academy for Performing and Visual Arts and Advanced Technology in downtown Greensboro.

Weaver offers tech classes and equipment not present at every high school in subjects like construction, HVAC, culinary arts and video production. Many students in the tech classes are bused in from their high schools during the school day to take advantage of the opportunities.

Across the district, there are about 25,000 middle and high school students enrolled in one or more career-tech classes. These students make up over a third of the district's entire K-12 enrollment.

After months of remote learning, students in these classes who chose to return to in-person learning are trying to make the most of the last weeks of school to practice as much as they can.

Students who spoke for this story said they were able to learn some things from their teachers during remote learning. They tried to learn what they could from watching videos that many teachers posted of themselves demonstrating techniques. And there's also some book learning, like memorizing vocabulary, that's the same as in other subjects.

But they also agreed that there's no real substitute for practice in these classes. They see that practice as relevant to their main career goals, back up career plans, or life skills they were expecting to acquire.

"I feel like there's definitely some stuff I could have learned if we were in person the whole time," said John Richmond, a junior taking automobile fundamentals at Weaver. "But I feel like even after everything that has happened this year, and with how Mr. Dove is such a good teacher, I can learn what I really need to know just for life."

Richmond said he learned about safety and the names of automobile parts during remote learning, but without the in-person lessons he is getting now, he doesn't think he would be getting the skills he wanted out of the class.

"Without this, it would have been kind of a waste of time, because I wanted to learn how to change the oil or change the tires on a car because it's a useful skill," he said.

He said thus far, it's coming easily — and it's all a lot less labor-intensive than how he'd seen mechanic work depicted on TV.

Dove said it's been a challenging year teaching his classes.

When students were all on remote learning, he posted his own videos and also found others on YouTube. Now he's trying to jam pack the days students are in class with hands-on practice and keep any book work to remote learning days. And some students have chosen to stick with remote learning through the end of the year.

Instead of maybe 16 or so students in class together in a typical year, Dove's in-person group for the automobile fundamentals class on Thursdays and Fridays is just a few students.

With the two other in-person students absent on Friday, Richmond had the vehicles in the shop to himself.

That's more hands-on access than he would have seen in a more typically sized class during a normal school year.

"There's not 18 cars you can bring in," Dove said.

Still, Dove said, he's looking forward to when many of his students will come back to school full time. Middle and high school students who are learning in-person two days a week now are set to return full time on Monday.

"I'm not going to miss the A-day, B-day," Dove said, referring to how students were split into two groups that came to school on different days to allow for social distancing. "I'm ready to get back to normal."

Every day, he said, he faces the worry that students aren't learning what they need.

"It's very difficult," he said.

Eboni Chillis, the district's interim chief innovation officer, said the district tried to help these students get the most that they could out of the online learning period. One strategy was to set up some students to use "Splashtop" software, which allowed them to remotely access desktop computers at the schools that had specialized software used in their classes.

Another strategy, she said, was to bring in a production company to help some career tech teachers, including some at Weaver, make videos of themselves demonstrating their equipment to the students.

And one particular group of students, seniors enrolled in the semester-long nursing fundamentals with practicum course, were given the opportunity to return in the fall, before other high school students. They needed to meet the required 40 clinical practicum hours to be eligible for the state health department's certified nursing assistant exam in 2021, hours that were not possible to get online.

Chillis and other district leaders also have been concerned with making sure students across all other career tech subjects are at least able to take the skills tests they would need to receive industry certifications.

Last spring, when the pandemic hit, tests were canceled, she said.

Now the district has a plan to get students tested for their classes this semester, and to offer students opportunities to take tests they may have missed last year or last semester.

They are planning one big push of testing between Saturday and April 23, plus more toward the end of the year.

"We are going for the gusto," Chillis said.

(c)2021 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.