The Intersection

Impact of COVID-19 on Career & Technical Education Courses

December 11, 2020

Updated: June 29, 2021

The Challenge

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and educational institutions shifted from traditional in-person learning to remote online instruction, and now are transitioning back to in-person and hybrid modes of learning, undergoing the greatest educational disruption in American history. Career and technical education (CTE) programs, which traditionally specialize in the skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technologies and career preparation, have not been immune to these drastic changes, as these courses primarily lean on a hands-on curriculum that encompasses a wide range of activities intended to provide students with skills demanded in the labor market. The costs of having students move to fully-remote instruction for CTE, therefore, are immense.

The pandemic created trouble for an area of education seeing a significant resurgence in interest over the past decade, with almost 60 percent of CTE administrators reporting lower enrollment in their programs, and only eight percent reporting an enrollment increase. In terms of funding, 22 percent of CTE administrators report a major decrease in private funding, while 16 percent report decreases in state funding and 15 percent report decreases in local funding. With states facing budget shortfalls resulting from the current economic , several state governments made funding cuts for CTE programs, including Alabama ($3 million cut to the state Department of Education), California ($8.5 million less for the community college system), Colorado ($8 million cut to area technical colleges), Oklahoma ($5.5 million less for the Department of Career and Technology Education) and Tennessee ($7.8 million less for the Division of College, Career and Technical Education). Luckily, the series of federal relief packages passed by the Congress had positive impacts on CTE programs for the 2020-2021 academic year, as 47 percent of CTE administrators reported that they received funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Moreover, governors are calling for increases in CTE investment in their FY 2022 budget proposals. In Idaho, Governor Brad Little is calling for the state to invest $4.8 million in CTE.  In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker called for a $16.9 million investment in transforming vocational high schools into Career Technical Institutes.

The most significant challenge for CTE educators during the 2020-2021 academic year has been engagement. CTE teachers who have taught in person have reported greater engagement and motivation among their students than CTE teachers instructing in remote settings. Several CTE groups, including the Kapor Center and the Computer Science Teachers Association, have expressed concerns about engagement, as well as equity gaps in virtual learning and the de-prioritization of non-core courses. Almost three-quarters of CTE professionals report being less effective at motivating and engaging learners compared to prior years, and CTE instructors have responded to engagement challenges by incorporating virtual instructional strategies involving gameplay and costumes.

As the United States charts a path to recovery from the pandemic, policymakers and education leaders must, therefore, recognize the value of CTE in that effort.

CTE Shifts During the Pandemic

For the past year, the pandemic has sent teachers of trade throughout the United States scrambling to find ways to fill the gap when students cannot be in the classroom. For many, that adjustment has meant finding online lessons created by companies to train their employees and using those frameworks to train students. In Dayton, Ohio, Sara Plozay, a cosmetics instructor at the Upper Valley Career Center, instructed students to cut hair on mannequin heads at home. In Akron, Ohio, students in automotive technology classes built quarter-sized models of V-8 engines at home, using video lessons to learn each step. These examples are a small sample of the approaches taken by CTE teachers to deliver instruction to students from a distance.

For the past nine months, however, remote learning has not been the dominant method of instruction for CTE. Since last fall, blended learning has been the most common delivery method, mixing both in-person and remote learning options. In January, more CTE teachers and programs engaged in in-person learning, with greater proportions of rural and small-town students and teachers engaging in in-person learning than their urban and suburban peers.

As stated by the Association for Career and Technical Education, districts have developed blended CTE delivery models in recent months, which include the following:

  • At Greene County Technical Education Center in Virginia, students were able to take in-person CTE classes at the tech center two days per week. Students underwent health screening when arriving on campus and maintained proper distance when engaging in classwork.
  • In Norwalk, California, the culinary arts program at Cerritos College (originally having capacity for 84 students), accommodated 20 students with proper distancing measures, and as of last fall, each student had their own fully-equipped station topped with a hooded ventilation system cycling fresh air from outside.
  • At Laramie County Community College in Wyoming, the welding lab has been equipped with cameras that show both the weld and the student’s positioning, allowing for the instructor to see the student’s progress from a distance and correct both the weld and the student’s physical movements. Additionally, the college accelerated its transition to a dual-delivery model in some programs, offering two versions of the course, one online and one in-person.

The ways that CTE programs have shifted during the pandemic may be here to stay, especially in the postsecondary space. At the end of 2020, The Urban Institute partnered with the CTE CoLab coalition to field a rapid-response survey of how the pandemic influenced program delivery among for-credit postsecondary CTE programs. The survey revealed that many programs requiring in-person training are expected to move to a hybrid format – combining in-person and online content delivery – post-pandemic.

Policy Considerations

Increase and Invest in the use of virtual and remote learning tools: Many educational institutions have experimented with providing traditional hands-on learning through virtual reality and other types of software that allow students to practice hands-on skills remotely. Simulation-based learning has been studied deeply in healthcare education, but can be made available to other sectors such as welding, aviation, and construction. Advanced, internet-enabled equipment in labs also allows students to conduct lab tasks remotely. West Virginia’s Simulated Workplace program has demonstrated how states can draw from industry expertise to ensure high-quality CTE learning.

Consider providing flexible guidance for work-based learning: During the 2020-2021 academic year, several states have offered latitude for CTE programs to provide remote, blended, or in-person instruction. Minnesota guidance for the 2020-2021 academic year left it up to districts to determine whether learners can go to a work site or whether to recognize remote engagement, industry credentials or other career exploration activities for work experience course credit. Other states, including Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, and South Carolina, have also provided more flexible guidance for CTE for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Reaffirm Quality: Education stakeholders should ensure that all CTE learning experiences require a strong training plan that will focus on the successful development of a student’s technical and employable skill development. Further, stakeholders should develop an approach to assess equitable access, student participation and learning, as well as the quality of remote CTE learning. 

Support funding for programs: As some institutions worry about state and emergency budget cuts, state policymakers should consider allocating funds to support expanding enrollment in CTE courses. Additional funding will also be required to continue supporting educators as they incorporate take-home kits for students to engage in hands-on learning in the safety of their own home. Further, state policymakers should consider using dollars from federal relief packages to invest in new materials and training needed, as well as support the realignment of CTE programs with ever-changing workforce needs.

Videos and tutorials: Several educators have found success this semester by engaging their students through video tutorials, often homemade in the professor’s home. Educators in automotive repair have been celebrated for making homemade videos from an instructor’s house and then uploading them on YouTube for students for students to analyze and potentially replicate if they have the necessary material.

Modifying Requirements: Students enrolled in Nurse Aid courses, both in high school and higher education, must master and perform state board requirements to be certified in states such as North Carolina. Further, students must complete service hour requirements which are traditionally performed in nursing homes. To adjust for the pandemic, educators have modified the skills to ensure students can practice their skills while remaining socially distanced and wearing the appropriate PPE equipment. Further, schools and government entities have announced emergency waivers to reduce the number of required onsite clinical hours for nursing students.

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