Technical schools grapple with hands-on learning as classes resume during pandemic

As traditional schools weed through reopening plans that largely include at least some online learning, career and technical centers across the region grapple with how to maintain predominately hands-on classes while keeping students and staff safe.

Several of the 16 career and technical centers that cater to high school students across Southwestern Pennsylvania have prepared plans that allow students to attend in-person classes when necessary and use virtual lessons for the technical side of classes.

“We’re going to work the hardest we can in whatever situation is presented to us,” said Eric Heasley, executive director of A.W. Beattie Career Center in Allison Park. “We’re prepared for the hybrid model we’re going to open the school year in, we’re prepared if we have to go to total remote learning, and we’re prepared, too, if we can get back to everybody’s here every day.”

A.W. Beattie teaches students from several schools, including Avonworth, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel, Hampton, North Allegheny, Northgate, North Hills, Pine-Richland and Shaler.

Students return Aug. 31 through a hybrid model, meaning less than half of students will be on site per session.

The plan, which is pending approval from the joint operating committee for the career center, would divide students into four groups.

Remote learning for all students is planned Wednesdays and on days they are not in the building.

When classes are conducted in person, instructors will take advantage of outdoor classrooms. Carpenter and building construction programs have sites where they will work outside, along with automotive technology and automotive collision programs.

“I have a staff that’s really looking forward to seeing their students back in some form or fashion, so they’re excited,” Heasley said.

Other schools, including Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in New Stanton and North Westmoreland CTC in New Kensington, are opening up five days a week. At CWCTC, students are permitted to attend in-person classes all week starting Aug. 31, Principal Richard Capraun said.

Students at a minimum should attend in-person classes two days a week. On days students are not in the building, they can take classes online.

CWCTC teaches students from Belle Vernon, Frazier, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield, Jeannette, Mt. Pleasant Area, Norwin, Penn-Trafford, Southmoreland and Yough.

Northern Westmoreland CTC is opening full time starting Wednesday, Administrative Director Kurt Kiefer said, noting classes have been reduced to about 25 students apiece. An online option was presented, but so far nobody has taken that route, Kiefer said.

NWCTC caters to students from Burrell, Franklin Regional, Kiski Area and New Kensington-Arnold.

Online-only options are not sustainable choices for career and technology centers, Kiefer said. Students must attend in-person classes at some point in order to complete their programs.

Students can use online options for theory-based learning, like memorizing heating and air conditioning symbols and wire diagrams. But to properly learn techniques, hands-on experience is necessary, Kiefer said.

“You don’t want the gentleman at Smail Auto that took online brake changes to be changing your brake pads,” said Chris Campbell, principal at Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in McChesneytown-Loyalhanna, which has students from Derry Area, Greater Latrobe and Ligonier Valley.

Still, some programs such as computer engineering, digital media and graphics are more open to online learning because they are computer-based. EWCTC officials, who are finalizing reopening plans, have worked over the past few years to provide some component of their programs virtually.

Eastern Westmoreland Administrative Director Todd Weimer said the goal of offering online components is to attract students who would not traditionally attend the school.

“That would open more doors to more learners for the career pathways that we offer here,” Weimer said. “Of course, our career pathways are directly lined with business and industry and they’re in-demand occupations. We need to do a better job of getting more kids exposed to career technical education.”

Despite high unemployment rates across the board, manufacturing jobs are available, Kiefer said.

“The big thing is I still have companies that need kids,” he said. “There’s a lot of work out there still. It’s not like work actually stopped.”

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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