About 90% of what welding and fabrication instructor Bill Pencil teaches his students at Tolles Career & Technical Center in Madison County has to be hands-on.

If Tolles ever has to go completely online as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Pencil said, he worries students will likely miss the most important part of learning how to weld.

"You have to build that muscle memory to become a good welder," he said, and feel the heat and the sparks.

As districts across Ohio figure out the safest ways to return to school while attempting to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Pencil and other teachers of hands-on programs at Tolles have to figure out how to instruct students during the pandemic.

Although Tolles doesn't have a final plan for how its instruction format will look this coming school year, the school likely will start with some sort of blended model of online and in-person learning, Superintendent Emmy Beeson said. School is slated to begin Aug. 19.

Beeson listed two key factors contributing to the reason for the blended-learning model.

Madison County's health department requires a minimum of three feet between students, regardless of a county's alert level on the state's color-coded scale, Beeson said.

"Even three feet is difficult if I have a classroom of 25 students," she said.

Franklin County is at a red-alert level, designated by the state as "very high exposure and spread" of COVID-19.

Tolles serves seven school districts (Dublin, Hilliard, Madison-Plains Local, Jefferson Local, London, Jonathan Alder and Fairbanks Local), but 56% of the school's student population comes from Dublin and HIlliard, Beeson said.

As such, the school has to consider the health ramifications of bringing students from a more at-risk county into Madison County, currently at a yellow alert level.

When school begins, Tolles is slated to have a little more than 700 students on campus, Beeson said. The school also provides teachers and equipment in satellite programs in the seven districts, serving an additional 1,200 students.

Some districts in central Ohio have offered parents a way to opt in to only online learning for their students.

Beeson said Tolles struggled with deciding whether to offer a similar option to their parents, because district officials want people to feel safe. Ultimately though, she said families choose Tolles because the school provides a hands-on experience in 16 different career pathways, to either enter the workforce or prepare for college or additional training.

If families do desire an online only curriculum for their children, they would likely withdraw from Tolles and return to their home schools -- all of which are offering online components, she said.

"Really that's the best option," she said.

Parent feedback, however, shows that most want hands-on learning for their children.

According to a survey of families given at the end of the last school year, 70% said online-only academics would not be favorable, Beeson said.

So Tolles is preparing the building for students.

Desks will face the same direction, and students will be seated individually at tables for lunches.

Small groups will eat in their classrooms, with each student spaced six feet apart.

All students and teachers will wear masks, Beeson said.

At least parts of students' career and technical lab instruction is still anticipated to be taught in person, Beeson said.

Many programs require a certain number of hours of hands-on instruction to earn credentials.

But as teachers and staff plan for the return to school, they are trying to do the very best for students, Beeson said.

"There are so many moving parts; we don't have all the information that we need," Beeson said. "There are so many what-ifs. ... I've never experienced a challenge like this."

Whereas some students will likely be fine with a blended learning model, others will have difficulties learning in an environment that doesn't allow for face-to-face interaction, Pencil said.

He said using Google Meet and Zoom has helped a lot, because it provides the opportunity for him to meet students face-to-face online.

This coming school year, Pencil said, he is considering doing online lessons showing him welding in real time.

He said he wants to get a wearable video camera to enable him to talk to students as he's welding, to provide the feeling of what it's like to be inside the shop.

"I need to do whatever I can so that my students are still learning," he said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah