Supporting Hands-on Education During a Pandemic

Blog Post
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
June 23, 2020

After thirteen straight weeks of record unemployment claims, it is clear we are facing the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression. And on top of the economic fallout, training to help people reconnect to the labor market will be more difficult to provide because of the nature of this crisis. As community colleges try to learn from the pivot to remote learning this spring, serve students this summer, and enroll their classes for fall, they are faced with one particularly difficult problem: continuing to offer hands on career and technical education in fields like advanced manufacturing, automotive, healthcare, and building trades during a pandemic.

Based on interviews with eleven community colleges, CTE programs--with their labs, equipment, and clinicals--will need to be provided with social distancing to be considered safe. While most of the colleges we spoke to plan to keep academic programs online or hybrid, they plan to bring their CTE programs back to campus. Indeed, students who were not able to finish their hands-on experiences in the spring are starting to come back to campus this summer to finish their programs. Most colleges have given these students through the fall to finish this part of their education.

Social distancing will make the programs more expensive, since fewer students can participate in each hands-on learning experience. That means colleges will need more faculty and will encounter space constraints. We already know that technical programs tend to cost more to offer than academic programs due to their smaller class sizes and specialized equipment and facilities. Many states, including California, fund them at a higher rate for just this reason. Now those class sizes will need to be even smaller. Labs and equipment will need to be sanitized between uses. And personal protective equipment will need to be used across the board.

Lowering the number of students in each hands-on learning session may mean adding more sections of these courses. This is expensive. In fact, one college told us it took their entire CARES Act allocation to compensate faculty for an extra two weeks to replace the two weeks off in March needed to prepare for the pivot online. Reducing student capacity could also mean having to add space with additional labs and equipment. A more likely scenario will be limiting new enrollment in these programs. This issue may be even more pronounced in the fall because many students couldn’t finish in the spring and will want to pick back up where they left off. At the same time, newly unemployed people need access to training programs with hands-on components to pursue new careers. There are some possible solutions to these new challenges:

Increase the use of virtual simulations and remote labs. We spoke to one college that had already been planning to deliver programs like respiratory therapy in both online and on-campus cohorts to enable increased enrollment. Social distancing has pushed that effort into high gear. There are virtual reality and other types of software that allow students to practice hands-on skills remotely. These types of virtual clinical environments have been studied extensively in healthcare education. But they are also available in other occupations like law enforcement, welding, advanced manufacturing, construction, robotics, and aviation. There are also labs with internet-enabled equipment that allows students to use them remotely. Students use an online interface to control robots that perform activities and collect data for assigned lab tasks. But of course, creating these virtual opportunities, while they might increase enrollment and the quality of education in the long run, required a sizable upfront investment. Even the college already discussing how to make their technical programs hybrid remarked on how expensive virtual reality can be.

Create a funding stream to support these programs. Almost all of the colleges we spoke to are worried about state cuts to their appropriations. In some states, emergency cuts have already happened. Many of these colleges are also worried about enrollment shortfalls in the fall. Given these precarious financial circumstances and the importance of technical programs to help people change careers and reenter the workforce, the federal government should consider allocating additional funds to support expanded enrollment in career and technical education programs at community colleges. One way to do this would be through Perkins V, the federal program that authorizes and provides roughly $1.2 billion for secondary and postseconday CTE programs annually. Increasing funding through Perkins and creating emergency grants could go a long way to supporting and expanding these programs. Furthermore, in an effort to support and evaluate evidence-based and innovative CTE strategies that respond to COVID, the US Department of Education could use its authority under Perkins V to award discretionary grants to community colleges.

Another way to allocate additional funding would be through a program like the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant from the last recession. This $2 billion investment supported new workforce training programs at community colleges. A new iteration of TAACCCT designed for the COVID-19 era could focus on helping increase the capacity of existing CTE programs both responding to the pandemic and to increase their capacity into the future. (See our recommendations for a new round of TAACCCT funding here). For instance, these grants could be used to purchase and integrate the types of virtual simulations outlined above.

Work with employers to do hands-on experiences remotely. We spoke with one college that partnered with employers to provide hands-on training in a socially distanced way at their place of business. This allowed the college to distribute hands-on experiences across the community, taking advantage of equipment that might otherwise have been idle, and reducing the need for students and faculty to be on campus. Rather than working with just a few local employers to secure students places for hands-on training, this college allowed students to complete needed practical experiences at any business in their area of training that would have them. For example, their culinary students used commercial kitchens across the area to demonstrate their growing skills and practice new techniques, sometimes with only one student completing their culinary practicum per kitchen. This type of tight relationship with employers creates the opening for additional work-based learning while helping students finish their training during a national emergency. Not all colleges are in the position to work this closely with employers, but for those who are, this could be an innovative solution.

The COVID-19 pandemic is making technical, hands-on programs more expensive than ever. At the same time, we need these programs to be available to help people reenter the workforce. We need to make a collective effort to ensure these programs are available for all who need them.