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Putting lectures online is doable, but that’s not necessarily true of coursework in fields like welding. Credit: Oliver Parini for The Hechinger Report

In fields like history, literature and French, transitioning to online learning — as many colleges have done to fight the spread of the coronavirus — might sound challenging but doable. In some career and technical programs, it’s a different story.

At Peninsula College, in Washington State, Eoin Doherty, who coordinates the school’s welding program, is scrambling to devise a plan for offering classes amid new restrictions resulting from the virus. In welding labs, an instructor demonstrates a technique to students on a machine, sends them off to practice on their own and walks around to check their work. That simply can’t be done online, he said.

For now, the campus is closed, and the school is on spring break. If they’re allowed to offer labs in person when classes restart on April 13, Doherty and college administrators plan to run students through coursework in smaller groups to maintain social distance. But if Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee extends an order for residents to stay home past that date, that won’t be an option.

In that case, Doherty and his administrators would have to figure out how students would get their lab time. Students who have welding equipment at home might send in photos of their work. Others might have to make up the lab time in another semester. The program might have to revise its grading criteria. “I’m working on so many options right now,”  Doherty said.

Ne’Keisha Stepney, a dean at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois, overseeing technical programs in areas like automotive technology, welding technology and HVAC installation and service, is facing similar challenges. The school has closed its doors through at least April 12.

“You need to see different patients’ mouths, the anatomy of the mouth. Virtually you’re not going to learn how to deal with a difficult patient.”

Theresa Grady, Community College of Philadelphia dental hygiene program director

Stepney is strategizing with faculty about how to offer content online — through Zoom and a video-recording platform called Kaltura. None of the available tools is optimal, she said.

If in-person classes don’t resume this semester, Stepney says she’s not sure how she’ll make her classes work. For administrators like her, it’s uncharted territory. “Probably in my entire career, this is one of the most challenging things that I’ve ever had to work through,” she said.

For students, there’s also uncertainty about how not finishing classes with a required on-site component will affect their plans. Jordan Chesek, an elementary education major at Roger Williams University, in Rhode Island, had been spending two hours a week in a kindergarten classroom as part of a student teaching requirement. While most of her classes are going online in response to the coronavirus, the student teaching portion is canceled.

Chesek, a junior, said she wasn’t sure yet how that would affect her credits and graduation. “I’m a little bit worried,” she said. For seniors, whose coursework is more dependent on student teaching, the impact is even greater, she said.

At the Community College of Philadelphia, campuses are closed through at least May 6, and all spring semester courses will be online. Putting lectures online isn’t a big concern, said Theresa Grady, who directs the school’s dental hygiene program. The problem is the required clinical practice.

Even 20 years from now, applied dental hygiene won’t be taught virtually, Grady said. “You need to see different patients’ mouths, the anatomy of the mouth,” she added. “Virtually you’re not going to learn how to deal with a difficult patient.”

A student in a nurse assistant vocational tech program near Atlanta takes part in an exercise for class. With colleges closed, students in nursing and other medical fields are being left without opportunities to acquire clinical experience and credits. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

Grady said her plan for now is to add extra clinics once campus reopens, even if that means meeting on weekends. “We’ll do whatever we can to finish these students,” she said.

The college’s nursing program is also scrambling to adapt. Last fall it created a telehealth component that lets students practice interviewing patients on an online platform, a timely addition. Virtual simulation products exist that could let the program mimic the experience of interacting with actual patients, said Laureen Tavolaro-Ryley, an associate professor and chair of the nursing program. But almost overnight, 50 or so adjunct faculty, who teach the hands-on clinical components, would need training on those products. And as good as online simulations might be, they don’t replace the experience of seeing a real patient, Tavolaro-Ryley said.

The faculty are meeting to figure out options for the roughly 10 percent of students who don’t have internet service at home. Those students might be allowed to come to campus to get access to the web, or convene to use the tools with students who do have internet “in the safest way possible,” she said.

As coronavirus cases in Philadelphia mount, Tavolaro-Ryley is determined that the school’s nursing students will finish the semester. “We need to get them out there to help with this,” she said.

Delece Smith-Barrow contributed reporting to this story.

This story about virtual learning in hands-on fields was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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