Career schools grapple with hands-on learning

EASTON, Pa. (AP) — Seventeen-year-old Marie Fritts has found her career calling, and it’s education.

“I’ve always wanted to work with kids, especially special needs kids, because they are just the sweetest human beings ever,” the Easton Area High School senior said.

Classes are resuming in many Lehigh Valley schools, including at the region’s career and technology institutes. which hundreds of students attend. As traditional schools continue working through reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic that largely include at least some online learning, career and technical centers across the region grapple with how to maintain predominantly hands-on classes while keeping students and staff safe.

Besides attending Easton, Fritts studies early childhood education at Forks Township’s Career Institute of Technology, which instructs about 700 students from Easton and four other Northampton County school districts in education, cosmetology, culinary skills and other trades.

The Palmer Township teenager has also been a part of the school’s Tech Tykes Early Learning Center, essentially a lab for early childhood education students. She learned lesson planning and other responsibilities, such as “toothbrushing with the kids,” who are 1-5 years old.

The school has decided to suspend its operation indefinitely because of concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19, and the lack of hands-on learning worries students like Fritts and their parents.

“If they don’t have child care, that would be a huge disappointment,” said her mother, Heidi Fritts.

At CIT, teachers will front-load the course work until the state relaxes its restrictions based partly on the number of coronavirus cases per county, according to Robert Rutt of Plainfield Township, who chairs the CIT board.

“We’re pushing our academics into the front, hoping that Harrisburg loosens things up a bit, and then they will try to get back to a new normal,” Rutt said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

The school will also operate on a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, similar to plans at Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School and Lehigh Career and Technical Institute. Upper Bucks County Technical School, which serves Palisades, Pennridge and Quakertown districts, is scheduled to open Sept. 2 with in-school classes.

But the hybrid-instruction model even has administrators concerned.

“I’m not going to lie to you, delivering instruction through multiple models and schedules will be challenging,” said Adam S. Lazarchak, executive director at Bethlehem Area Vo-Tech, whose territory includes Bethlehem Area, Saucon Valley and Northampton Area schools. “It will require our staff to be more creative and flexible than ever before.”

While hands-on performance is a major part of a career and technical curriculum, Lazarchak and other officials said students also need a large amount of theory and content knowledge ahead of mastering the skills to become welders, day care operators, machinists and other in-demand occupations.

A statewide survey sent to leaders at the more than 80 career and technology centers showed a mix of how schools are trying to meet students’ needs, according to John T. Pulver, associate director with Pennsylvania Association of Career & Technical Administrators in Camp Hill, Cumberland County.

Pulver said out of about 150 responses (the organization sent the survey to about 400 administrators), 53% said they were working with “some type of hybrid delivery system.” He said about 30% of administrators were embarking on in-person instruction, while 17% said their schools would be fully virtual.

Resourcefulness, adaptability and flexibility have become buzzwords for administrators, according to Pulver.

“It changes daily,” he said of schools’ curriculum plans, noting officials work with health and safety guidance from state and federal officials.

Pulver said Gov. Tom Wolf approved $10.5 million to assist career and technical schools in implementing health and safety plans. The money comes from federal coronavirus relief legislation, which authorized governors to determine the amount.

In a normal school year, most of LCTI’s 2,000 students start their mornings attending homeroom at their district high school and then are bused to LCTI. At LCTI, students learn in areas such as business, engineering, human services and technology.

This year, many of the students will be on a hybrid schedule that gives them both in-person classes and virtual ones. On Mondays and Tuesdays, students with last names beginning with A-K will be bused to the Schnecksville campus. Students with last names starting with L-Z will have their in-person classes Thursday and Friday. All classes Wednesdays will be virtual.

In the Allentown School District, where students are to work remotely, the school board voted 6-3 Thursday to allow the district to consider letting its LCTI students attend some in-person classes. Allentown sends around 800 students to LCTI — the most out of the nine Lehigh County districts affiliated with the vo-tech school.

Last month, the district decided to have all 17,000 students start the school year remotely because school leaders said they could not guarantee social distancing — even with face masks as a means to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 — in the buildings.

At the meeting, Superintendent Thomas Parker said if the district allows LCTI students to receive some in-person classes, it will have to work out logistics such as staffing and transportation with LCTI.

Amy Herczeg’s 14-year-old daughter Kendal, a freshman at Dieruff High School, will be taking her first LCTI classes this fall. Kendal signed up for three labs — cosmetology, painting and decorating, and cabinet making. But because Allentown students will, for now, join their LCTI classes online, Kendal’s lessons will be more about the theory of those three crafts rather than actual labs.

Allentown students could be at a disadvantage under those circumstances, Amy Herczeg said.

“The whole plan of LCTI is for kids to have hands-on learning,” she said. “I’m really concerned she’s not going to get the same education as the kids from neighboring districts.”

But Parker said during Thursday’s meeting it wouldn’t be fair to offer LCTI students some in-person instruction while other students, especially special education ones who also benefit from in-person lessons, won’t have the option.

“We begin walking the path of what does virtual look like and who gets virtual,” Parker said. “And for our students that are most in need in ASD, should we then begin creating spaces and opportunities for them to have in-person instruction as well?”

There were, perhaps, some soothing spots to vocational-technical training early in the pandemic. Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera waived certain assessment requirements for the 2019-20 school year, including standardized tests for students in career and technical education.

Also, schools were largely able to graduate students and get them into the workforce. And despite high unemployment rates in recent months in the Valley, manufacturing and other jobs that require skills training are available, Lazarchak said.

“In an economic climate that caters to the essential worker, I’m proud to say that the career training we offer prepares our students for those high-wage, high-demand, must-report occupations,” he said.

Still, students such as Marie Fritts, already strained by the partial loss of both class, and now hands-on work, wonder how much her education will flourish this fall under the specter of the coronavirus.

“It’s hard when you’re going into the education field,” she said, “because you’re working with kids, and so it sets us back as a class, because we really can’t work with the kids.”


Morning Call reporter Jacqueline Palochko contributed to this story.




Information from: The Morning Call,