BIOTECH TEACHER Arlyssa LaPorte sits at a desk in her classroom at Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School, with one camera pointed at her face and another at her hands. She is sharing her computer screen with 20 tenth-graders who are watching on Zoom from their homes.
LaPorte demonstrates how to use a spectrophotometer, a machine commonly used in the biotech field to measure how much of something – in this case copper sulphate – is in a solution. She shows the students how to take the sample, insert it into the machine, and measure it. On her screen, she shows them how to use a software program to record the data and form a graph. When the students come into school the next day, they will try the experiment for themselves, measuring solutions they made during a previous in-person class period.
With her students attending school in person every other day, LaPorte has restructured her class so they can prepare for labs at home, come into class and do them, then analyze the data at home. “Biotech is a good mixture of theory and applications that are sometimes computer-based, so we can prepare for lab remotely,” she said.
Vocational technical schools like Essex Tech in Danvers are facing a unique challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. The schools are tasked with teaching hands-on skills, often using specialized equipment that cannot be replicated at home. But students at most of the schools are working remotely at least part of the time, and some are working remotely all the time. The situation has forced teachers to get creative. From videos to take-home kits, teachers have developed unique ways to teach hands-on skills.
“Our teachers are definitely being pushed outside their comfort zone and being very creative all at the same time,” said Jill Sawyer, director of career technical education at Essex Tech.
In LaPorte’s Essex Tech classroom, she troubleshoots for a student who is having trouble logging into a website. She tells students they can turn off their video cameras if the video is causing problems with their wi-fi, and a few students do. One student shows up on screen as a picture of a dog.
A girl reports that her friend was “kicked out” of the classroom. LaPorte lets her back in, and the student apologizes for a fading internet connection. Nine months into the pandemic, LaPorte takes it in stride and tells the returning student, “No problem. It’s an issue for everybody.”
Kevin Farr, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, said because of the difficulty of teaching hands-on skills remotely, almost all the state’s vocational schools are operating in a hybrid format, with students in school part of the time. Farr said a common model is for students to spend one week at home learning academics followed by a week in school learning shop. (The alternating weeks of academics and hand-on learning is already how most voc-tech schools structured their school schedule before the pandemic.)
But some schools have adopted different models. Essex Tech, for example, has students splitting both academic and vocational classes between home and school, with students in person two or three days each week. Most vocational schools are regional schools that effectively operate as their own districts, so officials can make individualized decisions about in-person learning.
“The vocational community is all in for trying to get kids back in school. We believe that’s important,” Farr said.
However, a small number of regional vocational schools are entirely remote, like Keefe Regional Technical in Framingham. So are some schools that operate within traditional school districts, like Madison Park Vocational High School in Boston and Worcester Technical High School, where the vocational school is subject to whatever decision is made district-wide.
The need to conduct remote education – either full or part-time – has forced vocational school administrators and teachers to experiment with new ways of teaching.
LaPorte, for example, sent one class of students home with blood typing kits so they could type their own blood. She had another class grow plants from seeds, take leaf clippings, and bring them to school to extract DNA and figure out their genotype. Before Thanksgiving, a class took home milk samples and tried to figure out what made milk curdle.
Sawyer said when the school went fully remote for two weeks after Thanksgiving, lots of voc-tech teachers picked up wider lens cameras from the school technology office so they could more easily conduct remote demonstrations. For example, every year students work on a Habitat for Humanity house, so the electrical and plumbing teachers went to the house and worked there while students watched remotely.
Essex Tech superintendent-director Heidi Riccio said one advantage Essex Tech has is the school has required every student to have their own device since 2014, so when school shut down last March, there was none of the scrambling for laptops that students in many districts experienced.
Sawyer said last spring was more like “survival of the fittest — do what we can to get through the year.” But this year, teachers had more time to prepare. And students have been back in a hybrid model since August.
Riccio said the school draws students from 53 communities, including high-risk areas like Lawrence and Lynn, but she always felt it was important to bring students back into the building at least half-time. “The reality is kids need to be in school learning,” Riccio said. “We have a horse barn. We can’t just drive a horse over to someone’s house…We can’t say to an electrical student go wire your parents’ bathroom for them.”
Vocational schools with no in-person classes have had to be even more inventive.
Kevin McCaskill, executive director of Madison Park, said across the board, there are items that students will not have at their homes – whether a mechanical saw, a hospital bed, or an industrial size supply of food. McCaskill said teachers there have been teaching through a mix of staff-generated and YouTube videos. They invited guests working in different industries to speak to students remotely. Students are learning interviewing and resume writing skills. They demonstrate their work via video. “It’s been a difficult ordeal, but our teachers have really tried to do some innovative and creative things with remote learning,” McCaskill said.
Tony McIntosh, director of career and technical education at Keefe Tech, where high COVID-19 case numbers drove school officials to keep education all-remote, said teachers are focused on building up students’ content knowledge so they can move more quickly through hands-on work when they return to the building.
For example, the metal fabrication program is using an online program called Tooling U, which offers a self-paced curriculum taught via video. The students recently used the videos to learn how to operate precision manufacturing tools, skills they will use when they return in person. A plumbing instructor had students do a scavenger hunt, taking pictures of their home’s water meter and the trap mechanism under their sink. In a legal and protective services program, a teacher had students take their own fingerprints using graphite from a pencil and scotch tape, then analyze their prints. Cosmetology students picked up kits containing mannequins with artificial hair, so they could practice doing hair styles.
McIntosh said some topics are easier to teach remotely than others – for example, programming and web development are already done over the computer. But McIntosh said there’s always a way to make remote teaching work in some fashion.
“I wouldn’t say anything is impossible to teach remotely,” he said.