Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center (GACTC) transitioned to online learning as of April 6 in order to continue serving students while complying with Gov. Wolf’s stay-at-home recommendations. According to Eric Palmer, Executive Director, the school’s instructors and students have reacted with an incredible amount of creativity and resilience.

“Obviously, vocational learning is predominately hands-on, so the fact that we can’t get our students and instructors together to work in lab settings presents a special set of challenges,” Palmer said. “But our instructors are genuinely invested in our students, and they are coming up with inspiring and creative ways to make it work.”

For example, Ed Campbell, an instructor in the HVAC program, has created an assignment his students can accomplish without leaving home at all. “I’ve asked each student to complete an audit of their home’s HVAC system, evaluating the age and efficiency of the units,” Campbell said. “This is a very realistic project in our field.” Johnathan Erickson, a senior in the HVAC program, is taking the new way of learning in stride. “It’s a good assignment, and while we’re starting out with simple stuff I’m sure it will get more intense as he asks us to continue to work through different scenarios involving theoretical repairs,” said Erickson, who attends Altoona High School.

One instructor, Apryl Sparr, is using the circumstances of the coronavirus crisis as inspiration for an assignment. “I’m asking the students to create a visual representation of the phrase ‘we are all in this together,’ which is a rallying cry for the nation as we confront this pandemic,” said Sparr, who teaches Visual Arts Technologies. “They can use traditional media like oils, watercolors, sculpture, photography, or digital media – whatever they have access to and want to use. We’re going to get together online to brainstorm ideas as a group. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.” Once the students have completed their projects, Sparr plans to create a marketing assignment with the results – students will be tasked with finding innovative ways (social media, the school’s website, etc.) to share the projects with the public.

Heather McCloskey, Culinary Arts instructor, is also using current events as part of an assignment – her students are writing a short paper on how they would respond to the current crisis if they owned a restaurant. “I’m asking them to think through what a restaurant owner would need to consider – such as possible layoffs, and whether they would want to offer takeout and delivery,” McCloskey explained. “And if they do decide to offer takeout, what modifications they would need to make to avoid contamination and ensure everyone’s safety.” McCloskey is planning additional theoretical assignments, such asking students to create a virtual food truck with a signature dish, and describe how the dish would be modified to include regional ingredients as it traveled across the country. Students will have hands-on assignments too, such as being asked to prepare a meal for their families from three ingredients they have on hand, submit photos of the meal, and solicit reviews from their family members.

Instructors are communicating with students via email, as well as Canvas, an online learning platform, and tools like Google Classrooms. Instructors have been equipped with Google Voice phone numbers so they can communicate one-on-one with students without using their personal cell phones.

“We’ve reached to all households to determine home internet and device capabilities,” Palmer said.  “Nearly all partner school districts have distributed of electronic devices to their students, which is helpful as these can be used for their GACTC assignments as well. But where necessary, students without access are provided paper copies of work to be completed.”

For the first week of online learning, the school used an “enrichment and review” model, which meant that online activities focused on previously-learned concepts and skills, and were not mandatory. Beginning on April 14, the school’s model is shifting, and instructors will begin taking attendance and issuing grades. “We have to move forward as if this is our new normal,” Palmer said. “Our students will go on to become the next generation of essential workers, and we have an obligation to continue to prepare them.”

Special education and support personnel are making weekly contact with the parents of students who receive specially designed instruction. The check-ins are intended to ensure that if students are struggling or have questions, they can receive as much help as possible.

“Our students are passionate about what they do, and we’ve found that they are excited to get back to work,” Palmer said. “Obviously, these circumstances are not ideal. But the way everyone has responded to this unprecedented situation so far is fantastic.”