Students at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center will have the chance to come into the building for in-person classes once a week starting next month.
Plans presented to the center’s board last week call for bringing in a quarter of the student body a day. At most, CATEC would have 80 students in the building on any given day. About 290 students currently are enrolled at CATEC.
CATEC’s programs are predominantly hands-on as students work to learn trade skills. All classes are online in the first quarter, following the Albemarle County school division’s stages of reopening.
Teachers said at the board meeting that they’ve used the virtual classes for book work but that they need in-person classes to help students learn the necessary skills to pass their industry certification exams and to be prepared to enter the workforce after graduation.
“To participate in their class without the hands-on experience is like asking a student to read a book about playing the violin but never allowing them to touch the violin,” said Dean Kurtz, a teaching assistant in the auto body class.
CATEC Director Stephanie Carter discussed reopening plans with the center board, which unanimously supported the plan.
The center is jointly managed by the Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions. The center board is made up of members of the city and county school boards.
Carter said students will only qualify for credentials with hands-on instruction.
“I worry about our financial impact on our students if they want to pursue these career fields — being able to afford that [certification] post-graduation when it’s all free right now,” Carter said.
So far, to help with those classes, students were given tools to learn the skills at home such as mannequin heads for cosmetology students, miniature car engines for students in automotive service technology and food for culinary arts students. The teachers recorded lessons using a GoPro so students can see up close what to do with their hands.
Carter said she planned for in-person classes to start the week of Nov. 9, when the county moves to Stage Three, but that depends on the installation of a school-wide air purification system and developing a transportation plan.
“It would behoove us to slow down and make sure everything is safe,” she said.
Carter said waiting until after Thanksgiving break could give staff more time to prepare and plan for the transition. Following breaks, CATEC is planning to have a week of all-virtual classes.
“If students have traveled, when they return, they’ll have a week to develop symptoms and we’ll be able to make sure that there’s some kind of provision of protection there,” she said.
The center has large lab spaces, so with about six or seven students in each group, they’ll be able to social distance, Carter said. Students will have their own set of tools and not share equipment, in addition to other mitigation measures such as strictly enforcing the mask requirement.
Students will enter from one of four doors that will be tented so staff can check their temperature and complete a health screening. If someone fails the screening or temperature check, they’ll go to a designated quarantine space.
The plan will be evaluated quarterly. If Albemarle reverts to Stage Two, CATEC will go back to online-only.
Other technical education centers in the region have started in-person classes. Carter worried about how that would affect the competitiveness of CATEC students.
Additionally, the lack of in-person instruction has meant that some students have lost the chance to get dual-enrollment credits.
Stacey Reedal, whose son is in the firefighting program at CATEC, said online learning had been a great start and credited the school with providing an authentic learning experience in the virtual classroom and thinking outside the box to get materials to students.
“But it’s time to move into the realm where the students need to start getting some practical skills,” she said. “Their instructors, staff and students all know this. They are advocating for it. … It’s the start that is needed to meet their needs in order to secure their future.”
Ronald Moore, the auto body instructor at CATEC, said in-person instruction will help students build relationships with their teachers and fellow students and to feel part of the school community.
“I’ve been hearing from my students that it just doesn’t seem real,” he said. “It just seems kind of fake, my students told me. So they’re really needing that face-to-face to build those relationships in that culture for CATEC.”
In the interest of transparency, Carter said later in the meeting that some teachers had concerns about returning to school but wouldn’t speak during public comment out of respect for her.
“A couple of programs have more than one instructor,” she said. “We’ll work out whatever we need to work out so that kids can come back and teachers feel safe.”
Jennifer McKeever, chairwoman of the center board, said she is conflicted about the reopening decision. She wants to support the teachers and students, but she is concerned about what would happen if someone didn’t wear their mask correctly, even for a moment.
“I know how worried about going to a salon I am,” she said. “If a student has concerns, I hope we can support them in providing a safe space for them.”
McKeever added that if cases increase, she hopes Carter would feel comfortable halting in-person classes.
Carter said she understands those concerns.
“This is the hardest thing that I’ve ever considered,” Carter said. “I’ve often felt throughout this whole thing that I don’t want to be the one to make all these decisions. It’s been a journey to weigh and measure what we can do safely to move life forward. I care so much about kids and their access to things, and I want to make sure that we are not kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”