At the sprawling campus in Danvers, 20 or so miles north of Boston, Essex Tech students operate large-scale manufacturing equipment, care for the school’s horses and other livestock, raise endangered turtles and brook trout for eventual release into the wild, and conduct experiments in a biotechnology lab. They also help build houses for the needy, work in the school’s public café and bakery, and earn training hours to meet state licensing requirements for fields such as cosmetology and construction. But with Massachusetts’s public schools closed for the remainder of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the usual hands-on learning opportunities—the hallmark of the CTE curriculum—are now out of reach.
Teachers and students are suddenly cut off from the classroom tools and professional-grade equipment they have relied on; they can’t use lathes, troubleshoot electrical systems, or run medical laboratory tests. Sarah Bacci, a junior planning to study sustainable energy or aquaculture when she heads to college, applied to Essex Tech largely for the promise of that career learning. Her friends in the arboriculture program want to be “six feet or higher up in a tree, working with chainsaws, learning new skills, getting to perfect their trade,” Bacci told me. “There’s definitely a strain for students who have chosen to take a different path and now … don’t get to do that.”
There’s also the loss of in-person, close-up demonstrations of proper technique, and the opportunity for teachers to gauge students’ mastery in real time. At Essex, this kind of multilayered instruction is crucial—and it’s built on familiarity and trust between students and their teachers, who are grouped into “shops” for training, often with the same classmates and teachers throughout their high-school careers. Anthony Wilbur, who teaches environmental science and technology at Essex Tech, told me it’s been hard to have these tight-knit communities interrupted. “That’s a special thing that CTE teachers get to do, to mold them and teach them for that long,” Wilbur said. “I still communicate with them, but being at home is nothing like being in the room with them and working one-on-one.”
But Essex Tech teachers are finding creative ways to keep their students learning and engaged. Cosmetology teacher AnnMarie Lewis has dropped off mannequin heads, color mixing bowls, and hair clips for students who need them. For an assignment on how to talk with salon customers about the services they want, one student recorded a cellphone video of herself discussing hairstyle options with a new “client”: her father. “She walked him through everything—it was amazing,” Lewis told me.
Veterinary-science students in Jenn DeForge’s class are completing online tutorials, preparing for the Certified Veterinary Assistant exam, and watching live webcams set up in pet day-care centers and zoos to sharpen their observation skills. First-year culinary-arts and hospitality teacher Krisztina Perron asked students to interview family members about a favorite recipe and write an essay about its origins, then document themselves actually making the dish. Next on the schedule will be a video lesson on sushi, in which Perron’s 9-year-old daughter will assist her in their home kitchen. Jody Norton, who teaches information-technology services, has small teams of students configuring virtual networks that can handle documents, email, and webpages. They’ll have to hold a videoconference meeting on their own network and record it for Norton.