South-Western Career Academy: Pandemic hindered students' hands-on experience

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group
Automotive-technology students Bryce Eddy (left), 17, and Johnny Beverly, 18, prepare to drain coolant from a vehicle during class April 21 at the South-Western Career Academy in Grove City.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an obstacle course for schools, which have had to maneuver through various learning models over the past year, including remote and hybrid models, as their buildings were closed entirely and then reopened for a while.

The problem was even more acute for the South-Western Career Academy, where students learn by gaining hands-on work experience in the field or from hands-on lab instruction they can't get remotely.

"It's been quite a challenge," career-technical coordinator Amy Schakat said.

Students' in-field assignments and their opportunities to continue or participate in those assignments were dedicated largely by the protocols and guidelines for reopening set for each industry or business category by the state, she said.

"We followed the same safety protocols as the industries related to our programs," Schakat said.

If a type of business were allowed to reopen either fully or partially based on the state's guidelines, students could return to work on their assignments if an individual business allowed and if students and their parents were comfortable in doing so.

The pandemic also affected the student-run services that operate at the career academy.

The culinary-arts program's Academy Grill restaurant had to close for in-person customer service, just as other restaurants had done after the pandemic hit in March 2020, Schakat said.

The Academy Grill reopened for curbside pickup service only in November 2020.

The cosmetology program's Cutting Edge Salon is open 12:30 to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays for in-person appointments, but customers enter the salon at a side entrance and do not go through the SWCA building, Schakat said.

The pandemic had a minimal impact on the automotive-technology program's ability to give students hands-on experience, instructor Rob Thompson said.

Seniors work in the field at local auto-repair shops during the second semester.

Vehicle repair was one of the business categories designated as essential, Thompson said, so students have been able to complete in-field work assignments.

Automotive technology was one of four SWCA programs that were approved for students to attend in-person five days a week last October while the district was operating in a blended model.

The blended model had students attending their school in-person for only two days each week.

Students in auto collision, cosmetology and welding also were permitted to participate in lab instruction five days a week.

Automotive-technnology students Taylor Armstrong (left), 18, and Bobby Adams, 18, conduct a cap-pressure test during class April 21 at the SWCA.

"Students in those programs really need to handle equipment and tools in their labs that you just can't replicate online," SWCA assistant principal Laurie Buchieri said.

"We were lucky to have the opportunity for five-days-a-week instruction," Thompson said. "The nature of automotive technology, giving students just two days a week of lab work, wouldn't allow them to develop the skills they need to move forward in the field after they graduate."

Bryce Eddy, a senior in the automotive-technology program, said he is grateful he has been able to participate in labs five days a week.

"It's hard to communicate with a teacher through a split screen on a computer," he said.

He's also been able to get more hands-on experience working in the lab, Eddy said.

Eddy is working in the field at Hugh White Honda and worked earlier this semester at the Valvoline Instant Oil Change in Hilliard.

Seniors perform auto repairs through the automotive-repair service offered by the career academy.

The service is open from 12:30 to 3 p.m. by appointment only on all days South-Western schools are in session.

The situation has been more difficult for the dental-technology program, instructor Nina Brown said.

Juniors typically spend several days during second semester participating in clinical training at the Ohio State University dental clinics, Brown said.

Those assignments were canceled after the pandemic hit last spring and the university and dental clinics shut down, she said.

"Our students weren't able to complete those assignments during junior year," Brown said.

The career academy was able to make arrangements this school year with several central Ohio dental offices to have students work two days for six hours each day at their locations to complete their clinical-training assignments, she said.

During their senior year, SWCA dental-technology students gain experience working internships at dentist offices during second semester, Brown said. 

"They don't spend any time in my classroom while they are working out in the field," she said.

Dentist offices closed for about a month last spring until they were designated as essential services, Brown said.

Seniors could return to their in-field assignments at that time if they and their parents felt comfortable that the students could work safely in the field, she said.

All of the seniors in the career academy's dental-technology program have returned and completed their in-field experience, Brown said.

"In some ways, it turned into an advantageous situation because some of them were offered jobs," she said. "There's a shortage of workers right now in the dental-technology field."

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