N.H.'s Vocational Schools Struggle To Plan For Reopening | New Hampshire Public Radio

N.H.'s Vocational Schools Struggle To Plan For Reopening

Jul 22, 2020

Credit Courtesy of Steve Rothenberg

Governor Chris Sununu’s guidelines for reopening New Hampshire’s schools leave many decisions up to local school boards - many are looking at a hybrid model, a mix of in-person and remote learning.

But as districts work to solidify these plans, vocational and technical education schools are already experimenting with how to offer students hands-on education at a safe distance. 

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Joining NHPR's All Things Considered is Steve Rothenberg, director of the Concord Regional Technical Center. Thanks so much.


The following transcript is lightly edited for clarity. 

 So how different is this summer for you, compared to what we would consider normal summers?

That's sort of the million dollar question. Normal summer: we'd be preparing for the coming school year. This year, it's quite the opposite. We're trying to attempt to map out what school is going to look like in a sort of, “phase three.” Phase one was before COVID, phase two as this past spring. And now phase three, or the new COVID model.

Can you give me an example of the kind of new things that you are referring to?

Obviously, last spring we migrated to a remote model. And what's unique about current technical education, is that using our center as an example, we were a remote model, but we are serving students from nine different high schools. So now as we get to what I'm going to call phase three, which, let's call it a hybrid model, we're now exploring a way of serving students from nine high schools, but in a way where they're going to be on our campus for some stretches of time. So the concept of attempting to link into nine high schools and link into their plans, is very, very complex.

I see. And is there any kind of training that is just impossible while you're also trying to maintain the social distancing requirements?

Yeah, that's a great question. Conventionally, when people think of career technical education, they traditionally think of things like automotive and construction, which is the model that has been around for many, many years. And then we should note, that extends now, career technical education really spans all types of careers. We have students here doing graphic design, health sciences. We were program about theater and film. So students are preparing to do technical theater and acting. So many of our activities involve interaction. So we are rethinking all those models.

Tech schools typically serve students from all over a region. Concord Regional Technical Center serves students from nine high schools. If each school has a different hybrid schedule in the fall, how are you going to be able to schedule or create a schedule that accommodates all your students?

I was talking to one of our schools yesterday and like most schools, high schools, they're looking at that 50 percent capacity model. And so for those listening who don't know quite what that is, you take a typical class, 25 kids, and one day twelve kids will show up. The next day, 13 kids will show up and every day vice versa. So one of the challenges we face is let's just say in the design, it said, you're going to go to your class on in at school on Monday. Tuesday, you don't go to class, but you have work to do. Well, for me, when I look at that Tuesday, I think about a lot of flexibility of bringing that student to our center and potentially doing some extended classes or some deeper labs, or something of that sort. But some schools are looking at models where on that off day you actually have to sync into the class. So you're home on your computer and you're doing live learning. So that little subtlety of the off day being a live synchronous event or the off day being work at your own pace, that little subtlety is a big factor for us and how we're trying to schedule what we do here.

I see. What are you most worried about as the pandemic continues?

I would say to you that, we run two year programs here. And as the pandemic continues, there's two things that are occurring. I think people value what we do more. I think the concept of career technical education, which has been on an upswing over the past stretch of time, I think when people have the ability to settle in and say, this is the kind of learning I want to do. But at the same time, I worry about our sustainability to serve all those students.

And, will we feel that down the line as a society when we need those people to be ready to take the place of, you mentioned graphic designers, graphic designers who are out of the career and retiring?

Yeah, there's ninety-five hundred kids enrolled in career technical education in the state of New Hampshire, which is two year programs by-in-large. There's about thirteen or fourteen thousand kids who graduate every year. So we're a big workforce driver and we just do a spectrum of industries for manufacturing to medical, to auto, to, like you said, graphic design, or computer engineering. And all of a sudden you're going to have this blip of people who have less training.

New Hampshire is a state that is known for local control of school districts. But is there anything from your perspective that would be helpful if the state were to mandate a particular behavior or a scheduling activity?

Yeah, you know what we were hoping for, if the state pursued building some common coordination. And the example we gave earlier was scheduling. It seems like most districts are looking at a five day schedule with one day of the week having a different nature to it. Some call it a remote or deep cleaning day. But if the stated organized that one day to be the same, little things like that would go a long way to sort of helping us figure it out. Another dilemma we have from a state level is this concept of, well, Concord, our home district may be open, whereas another district that feeds us may end up going remote. Well, you know, there's a big question there, whether a student could come still come and self-transport themselves here. And I think that a lot is left to a family to decide that. But we were hoping to get some definition for the state.