'It Was Getting A Little Thin:' West-MEC Welcome Students Back For In-Person, Hands-On Instruction
MARK BRODIE: West-MEC, the career and technical education school district that serves the northern and western parts of the Valley, started in-person classes [Sept. 9]. Courses started online [in August]. The students come from dozens of high schools to study fields, including coding, dental assisting, automotive work, construction technology and fire science, among others. Greg Donovan is the superintendent of West-MEC. I spoke with him earlier. And since his programs draw students from so many different schools, I asked how West-MEC tries to make sure that everyone's doing the same thing and on the same page when it comes to health protocols.
GREG DONOVAN: Well, Mark, that's a great question and certainly is our challenge — the fact that students do come from so many different locales and communities to our programs at West-MEC. But we've worked very diligently to make sure that our families understand that this is a two-sided process; that they have responsibilities in making sure that they're ready and that they've met the requirements and that they're feeling OK and all of those things, while we have our requirements as well. As a career and technical program, our class numbers are smaller. Our classrooms and laboratories are larger by square footage. So we were quite comfortable that we could meet the social distancing guidelines and safety requirements.
BRODIE: Now you mention labs and, you know, students who are doing career and technical education. A lot of that is very hands-on work. How do you try to do that remotely?
DONOVAN: Well, it was difficult, but as in anything, our teachers rose to the occasion and our leadership team worked very hard at it. There is an amount of book work and homework-type processes and things that students can practice and do online. We were getting a little thin because that can only go so far, and we're quite pleased that we were able to come back. We would have continued to do our very best, but it was getting very important that we were starting to reach that time to be able to bring students back into live instruction. Because you can only go as an example. You can only go so far in teaching students how to build a house through a computer.
BRODIE: So you mentioned obviously following CDC guidelines and, you know, your labs are bigger and distancing and all. But I would imagine that some of the classes, it'll be harder to do that than others, like in, for example, a dental class or a hairstyling class. Like, that necessarily requires people to be near other people, right?
DONOVAN: Correct. But remember, even today when we go to the dentist, today our dentists and dental assistants and those things wear face shields. They wear gloves. It is just part of that occupational program that students are used to those safety measures because that's how it happens in actual dental practice. So we have doubled up on the cleaning supplies and all those things, so everything is wiped down more often. Students are reminded. But you're absolutely correct. Some of our programs will still require, in some cases, for some of that instruction, some rather close proximity. And everyone just has to be extra precautious.
BRODIE: I'm curious about how your students and to an extent, your instructors, are handling, I guess, what comes after high school. I mean, a lot of these students, I would imagine, are looking to enter the fields that they're studying now. And some of those fields are among the hardest hit by the economic problems that we're facing due to this pandemic. What are you hearing from students and teachers about the careers that they're training for right now?
DONOVAN: Well, in most cases and in many, many cases, our students are pursuing continuing education, and a number of our programs are still operating, so students are moving into some of those things. Has it slowed down opportunities for students to find actual jobs? Yes, it has. But if you think about it, we really were just completing a class of students last spring. We know that that is when when we were in the height of the pandemic, and it has definitely slowed students down, there's no doubt about it. However, in many, many of our programs, those occupational areas, all of the various construction trades, many of the health occupations and careers, those things are still marching forward. They are all required occupations that must keep going forward. Our law and public safety. All of those things continue to operate at full tilt, and our students are moving right into positions and being employed.
BRODIE: Have you noticed any changes either up or down in terms of enrollment in any particular course studies?
DONOVAN: Our enrollment for this fall has been a little bit... We are about at the same number we were a year ago. However, we weren't backfilling as students dropped right here at the beginning. We have lost a few students through the online process. They just said, "This isn't for me." So while I wouldn't particularly say that we're way down, we certainly are flat. And our bigger question is, "What is coming next year?" Because this process for education, we actually started talking to students in September, October, November for the following year. So we're kind of filling out what we actually started this time a year ago. The bigger question is what's going to happen a year from now. Because we don't have the capacity because of the pandemic to go out and recruit in the truest sense that we used to with classroom presentations, lunch time on the mall, discussions with students and tables set up, career nights, those kinds of things that high schools typically do. We're a little concerned those won't be happening. So our bigger concern about enrollment is actually next year. But just like high school, students will continue to come to school and we will continue to do our very best to get the word out about the career and technical programs and serve students to the best of our ability.
BRODIE: All right. That is Greg Donovan, the superintendent of the Western Maricopa Education Center, or West-MEC. Greg, thanks a lot for your time. I appreciate it. Good luck with the beginning of the semester.
DONOVAN: Thank you.