Across the country, school is getting back into session for the upcoming year. Reopening schools amidst the coronavirus pandemic has encourage numerous different approaches to making sure students stay both safe and educated.

Trade schools, which typically incorporate hands-on training to equip students, must encounter this challenge as well. How are trade schools handling these times?


Technical Schools in Georgia

Mike Howard, curriculum program specialist for the technical college system of Georgia, said that there are 22 schools within his system, and they are being given the option to decide how to run themselves.

“Pretty much widespread, they are doing a mixture of online and in-class instruction,” he said. The schools in the Georgia Technical College system utilize a learning management system called Blackboard, which allows teachers numerous applications for teaching, such as video calling and collaborative documents.

“For the theory and the knowledge portions, they are able to bring in students on a limited basis in their labs,” he said. “They follow all of the CDC-recommended protocols for cleaning the lab, social distancing, personal protective equipment, and so forth.”

Howard explained that the advantages of this structure save students commute time, as well as often allowing them to complete online classwork on their own schedule. However, because Georgia has a number of very rural areas, not all students have easy access to Internet or laptops.

“You lose that in-class interaction and dialogue between the students and the instructor,” he said. “There's a lot of dialogue that goes on during that time where you get a lot of information that may not come out in an instructor presentation or just individual students questions submitted through a chat room.”


Education in Oklahoma

Ric Russell, technical program supervisor at the Oklahoma Department of Career & Technology Education, said that the state of Oklahoma is operating a hybrid model for education.

“We're alternating days between students in the lab and limiting how many are in at one time,” he said. “We're doing some live training online as well, as simulations and recorded trainings.”

He said that the department has been working with textbook publishers to get simulations for the students. He also explained that the transition has gone smoothly, but planning the logistics of maintaining health measures in the labs can be complicated, especially when lab equipment needs to be moved to allow for social distancing.

“The unexpected positive is that once we get things in place to where things move automatically, it gives us the ability to increase the student population that we're reaching in a better way,” Russell said. “We can actually see more students with the same personnel. It also gives us more options for programs, like if we wanted to add specific short-term courses.”


Los Angeles School Systems

Bruce Noble, regional director of employer engagement for Energy Construction & Utilities – Los Angeles, said that the majority of schools are doing distance education for academic lessons, and have opened the labs back up with social distancing in place as they bring small groups of students in.

Noble explained that students who have a good grasp of the fundamentals (reading a micrometer, understanding relationship between fractions and decimals) do fairly well. But students who lack the fundamental skills struggle to keep up.

“If you can’t practice and put muscle memory to it, you really can’t be successful,” he also said. “So we’re really working hard to try to do work-based learning, to where we can get students out on internships and job shadowing with partner employers.”

He explained that this is a new process that is slowly getting off the ground, but he has seen success in the HVAC classes he deals with, where interns are being brought into contracting companies to learn the trade and enhance their schooling.


Handling the New Age of HVAC Education

Howard Weiss, executive vice president for ESCO Group, explained that some problems arising in the discussion to reopen trades schools come from unintentional generalizations.

“Thirteenth-century English literature can be taught online, but welding cannot,” he said. “If something can be taught as a lecture, it can be taught online. If it requires a hands-on element, you need to find a way to get them in there for that.”

Weiss explained that an in-person interaction is also needed to verify that students have the skills to enter the job market.

“There are basic competencies and tasks required for entry-level positions in each CTE (career and technical education) field,” Weiss said. “Mastery of these competencies and tasks require retained knowledge and, in many areas, hands-on validation. Under no circumstances can a CTE educator truly and accurately verify whether students can apply their knowledge in a real-world, hands-on environment strictly through online learning. A student may learn about brazing through reading, watching a video, and virtual reality excises. However, to validate that a student can apply this retained knowledge, and safely braze, a hands-on verification is necessary.”

ESCO Group hosted a webinar, titled “New Ideas for HVACR Education,” geared toward helping schools navigate these times through creative problem solving. Eugene Silberstein, director of technical education and standards at ESCO and lead author of Cengage’s Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Technology textbook, shared several of these ideas.

“Challenges aren’t always bad,” he said. “When faced with challenges, we find new ways to do these. But productive changes only come when we are active participants in the process.”

He shared the benefits of remote lecture sessions: increased number of students per teaching, schools being able to “share” talent and allow instructors to focus on their area of expertise, and instructors not needing to be local for remote lectures.

Silberstein recommended that schools form relationships with local contractors. These contractors can become potential employers for the students, as well as provide internships that offer students more hands-on training.

He also discussed simulations and virtual reality training — saying that it should not be a go-to option for schools to train students with, but it could provide a possible solution when no other alternatives exist.

“In the end, simulations and virtual reality platforms are best used to enhance and supplement live hands-on training, not replace it,” he said.