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With Labs Closed, N.H.'s Career And Technical Students Try To Continue Hands-on Learning

Courtesy Karena Czzowitz

Karena Czzowitz, a junior at Manchester School of Technology, is studying to be a Licensed Nursing Assistant. LNA’s are in high demand across New Hampshire, especially in nursing homes.

But with school closures during the coronavirus pandemic, Karena is missing a big part of her education. 

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“The hardest thing is not having the lab,” she says. “Because all of my skills are in the lab. We would practice on each other, and that’s how we would learn our skills.”

Many other students are in a similar predicament as Karena. Over 9,000 high schoolers in New Hampshire attend Career and Technical (CTE) schools, where they get hands-on training and real-life experience for jobs in industries often struggling to find enough workers.

The pandemic has upended CTE education, but some of the industries CTE students are studying for - health services, auto repair, machining - may continue to have workforce shortages even during the economic downturn. Now, CTE programs that used to rely on labs are scrambling to prepare students remotely.

Without Schools or Nursing Homes, LNA Training Goes Remote

Before the pandemic, Karena and her classmates were on track to become certified LNA's this spring. Karena had finished her clinical hours at a Bedford nursing home and was planning to take an in-person test. She was counting on time to study with her teacher in the school’s lab, where she had full access to computers, mannequins, and medical equipment. 

The test is still on, but now, Karena has to study for it from home.

“I obviously can’t practice a bed bath with a fracture pan or with a standard bedpan because I don’t own that,” she says. “I have to be a little creative and find things I can use in my house.”

One of those is an office chair with wheels, which Karena has repurposed as a wheelchair. Every day, Karena’s mom pretends to be the patient, and Karena practices moving her in and out of the pretend wheelchair without dropping or straining her. 

CTE Programs Shift Focus to Employability

The transition to remote learning has required unprecedented flexibility in all schools, but CTE centers face particular challenges.

Few CTE teachers prioritized google classroom or other online tools prior to the pandemic. While CTE programs require coursework in theory, science, and math, the bulk of learning is hands-on.

“CTE teachers have those additional barriers of not having access to their labs and having students who signed up because they want to take a hands-on class and now are stuck behind a computer,” explains Amanda Bastoni, the former director of the Nashua Technology Center and an education research scientist at the educational non-profit CAST. 

Bastoni recommends that CTE schools focus now on their basic goal: helping students become employable. 

“I would encourage CTE teachers to be thinking: how can I teach my students to teach themselves to learn something?”

Bastoni says learning this skill is just as important as knowing how to operate a machine.

“If you’re a plumber, if you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re a biotechnician, if you’re a healthcare employee, there are going to be moments when you need to teach yourself how to gather information and do something new,” she says.

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Without Machines, Machining Classes Get Creative 

Credit Courtesy of Cannon Newbury
Cannon Newbury, a student in precision manufacturing at Lakes Region Technical Center, produced a rocket stove at home for an assignment during remote learning.

That kind of indpendent experimentation has become the focus of some remote classes at Lakes Region Technical Center in Wolfeboro.

Students in the precision manufacturing program have built rocket stoves out of tin cans and met over Zoom to talk over an assignment to create a smooth metal ball out of materials like aluminum foil, a rubber mallet, and sandpaper.

“We normally use a piece of solid stock aluminum to make a ball out of,” explains Hunter Wrigley, a senior at Lakes Region Technical Center. “But now, not that you would ever need the application, but it’s the process of thinking outside the box.”

But Hunter says he misses the real deal: access to machines in the lab. 

He says this is what kept him focused and motivated in school. Before school closures, he had begun to master the Haas Mini Mill, a machine that can be programmed to cut metal for automobile and airplane engines. 

“I can’t physically be there. I can write a program, but I can’t run it and I can’t test it to see if it works,” he says.

Hunter plans to be back in a lab next fall, assuming community colleges open their campuses again. And his teacher hopes that the tech center will be allowed to reopen in the summer to give students a chance to catch up on their machining skills.

Credit Courtesy Hunter Wrigley
Hunter Wrigley's aluminum ball, made from aluminum foil for a remote learning assignment.

But the school acknowledges that seniors who were struggling before school closures will be at a disadvantage entering the workforce.

CTE Centers Push for More Resources, Licensing Exceptions During Pandemic

CTE centers are making adjustments at local and federal levels to keep students on track. In April, the Association for Career and Technical Education and Advance CTE asked Congress to dedicate a billion dollars towards CTE programs to help them transition to remote learning and serve an anticipated spike in displaced adult workers seeking CTE training. Last week, members of the House and Senate introduced bills fulfilling some of these requests.

In New Hampshire, CTE teachers have worked with licensing boards to make emergency exceptions for students. The cosmetology and nursing boards are allowing students to finish up their required hours remotely, with online simulation programs.

But for many LNA students still short a few hours, that simulation software is only available in school labs, which are currently closed.

In many ways, Karena Czzowitz, of Manchester, counts herself lucky. She finished all her clinical hours before the pandemic, and her practice at home with a pretend wheelchair paid off; last month she took the LNA certification test and passed it. 

At 16, Karena plans to apply for a job at a nursing home. She knows it will be hard; she’ll have to socially distance when off work and practice good hygiene, and still she’ll wonder if she’s carrying the coronavirus and infecting residents.

But she still wants the job. And with LNA’s in high demand, Karena will likely join the state’s ranks of essential workers this summer.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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