The Intersection

Impact of COVID-19 on Career & Technical Education Courses

December 11, 2020

The Challenge

As the coronavirus pandemic forces many school and educational institutions to shift from traditional in-person learning to remote online instruction, career & technical, and workforce education programs must modify their classwork for the online environment. CTE programs traditionally specialize in the skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technologies and career preparation. These courses often provide students with a hands-on curriculum that encompasses a wide range of activities intended to provide students with skills demanded in the labor market. Advocates of CTE courses and career-oriented learning activities, such as internships and apprenticeships, claim that CTE can motivate students to be more engaged and improve core academic skills.

While research suggests that CTE courses provide students interested in vocational careers the opportunity to develop skills such as teamwork, problem solving, and communication, as well as promote college readiness, CTE courses declined as states mandated core academic courses for high school students. These new graduation requirements and a growing perception that all young individuals should be encouraged to obtain a four-year degree, led to a large decline in CTE participation amongst high school students.  However, within the past decade, there has been a large increase in interest among students and in some cases state funding for CTE programs has increased. Further, the US Department of Education finds that roughly 77 percent of high school students earn at least one credit and roughly 67 percent of college students must partake in a course that requires hands-on learning, such as a lab.

Unfortunately, students might not be receiving quality career technical education during school closures, which could potentially impact their college and career readiness upon graduation. Some courses, such as graphic design, can easily be transitioned to online learning, but courses that rely heavily on equipment and machinery have struggled to adapt and have created an equity gap in the education students enrolled in those courses receive.

Throughout the fall 2020 semester, CTE educators became extremely creative and adapted their coursework to allow for physical distancing and remote learning. Many have combined videoconferencing technology, video recordings and at-home student projects to teach new concepts and prepare students for certification exams. Some examples include:

Alternative Assignments:  Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School, a public high school located in Massachusetts has an environmental-science-and-technology-program which prepares students for careers in fields such as wastewater management, ocean resource policy, and wildlife biology. While students typically take trips to the coast to study shoreline debris, educators have shifted their coursework to promote local neighborhood sweeps for students to collect analyze the harm of trash found in their own neighborhoods.

Providing Resources for At-Home Learning: Cosmetology educators have dropped off mannequin heads, color mixing bowls, and hair clips for students to continue developing their skills outside the classroom. Student assignments have also shifted to submission of cellphone recordings of their “service interactions” with objects or individuals found in their homes. Another instructor provided students in a construction program with donated lumber and step-by-step instructions for a small at-home repair project. At the University of Washington, Professor Laura Prugh sent each student enrolled in her wildlife research techniques class a kit for students to complete independent research projects while at home.

Julian Yamaura, a lecturer in civil and environmental engineering, is teaching a construction materials class this quarter. This class has a major lab component so Yamaura is filming video modules that students can watch and then discuss in an interactive Zoom class each week. This week, Yamaura is filming how to make concrete. In one of the videos, Yamaura is including mistakes that students may encounter on real job sites after they graduate.
Credit: Kiyomi Taguchi/University of Washington


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.

Policy Considerations

The examples highlighted above showcase how CTE educators have strategically yet creatively adapted their courses in an attempt to benefit their students during online learning. Policy makers should consider how to best support CTE educators as they grapple with the difficulties in transitioning hands-on learning to a remote environment.

Provide Clear Information:  Education stakeholders should be prepared to critically and clearly inform educators how to maintain curriculum quality and alignment to standards while adapting to remote, blended, and socially distanced learning. Clear communication is important as educators modify and adapt their courses for remote instruction to ensure that equity goals are being met.

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. 

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.

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 advocating for additional funds from the federal government through the use of grants.

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