Tech students returning for hands-on curriculum

Westfield Technical Academy Principal Joseph F. Langone. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS  PHOTO)

WESTFIELD – Westfield Technical Academy Principal Joseph Langone said one of the reasons that it is important to bring tech students into the shops first is that the school has received no exemptions from Chapter 74 regarding vocational education.

Langone said what that means is that remote learning, or hybrid learning does not apply to technical education. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) sent out separate guidance about the return to school to superintendents and principals of technical schools that included safety protocols, wearing masks, and returning to a normal schedule after the initial two-week delay.

Langone said the guiding principle is that you can’t have an authentic, meaningful technical experience if you don’t have the ability to touch the curriculum, adding that means WTA students will be returning to a normal schedule on Sept. 14.

“Our kids are still going to be doing shop one week and academics on the opposite week, but they will be accessing academics remotely until all students return to school. For sophomores, juniors and seniors, the flow of the schedule will be completely familiar. For freshmen it will be different, because they haven’t been there at all,” Langone said, adding, “Our upheaval is minimal, with the odd factor of accessing part of it remotely instead of in person.”

Langone said there are certain programs that in addition to having a specific set of competencies, also have the added requirement of hours, which are focused on occupations that require a state license to practice after graduation. Giving the example of electrical wiring, he said students become apprentices and journeymen on their way to a master license.

“Here, electrical wiring can earn some of those hours through shop time. During closure, while those kids could earn grades, no hours were granted for remote learning. If one of your end games is to accrue hours for apprenticeship (that’s a loss),” Langone said.

Another example is aviation maintenance, which is based on hours and FAA hours. In order to graduate, general curriculum and airframe hours can only happen in person. Langone said last year, Assistant Secretary of Career Education Bob LePage gave an exemption to allow AMT seniors into the hangar during July, or they would have been deficient in the hours needed to graduate.

Langone said he feels grateful and has confidence in the school. “All of my teachers, including the tech teachers did a great job at the eleventh hour, and we will continue to hold kids to high standards in new settings. As a district, we will be working to make sure we have the technological tools to make that happen.”

All the shops in the school are sufficiently large enough in square footage to meet the requirements of DESE of six feet without masks or three feet with masks.

“We are in the process of structuring other things like lunches,” Langone said. He said they are fortunate to be able to do that in the shops, but trying to meet social distancing in many of the academic classes would have been challenging.

“Shops are structured for a variety of different tasks happening at different times. Some are smaller than others, and teachers may have to adapt and utilize stations and outside classes as well while weather holds. I think we’re going to be in very good shape overall,” Langone said.

While all district parents had the opportunity to respond to an enrollment survey to indicate their preference for remote, hybrid or in person learning for their students this year, “what we needed to remind folks is that hybrid or remote is not acceptable or viable for our kids,” Langone said, adding that eight or nine responded asking for a remote option. He said the administration will reach out to these families, because students will have to be unenrolled and go to Westfield High School in those cases.

“We can’t support that kind of learning in the shops.” Langone said. He said when he explained the situation carefully to a couple of the families, and told them social distancing and protocols are in place, they felt comfortable about sending in their students.

“The kids are telling me they’re very anxious to get back to business. Kids need some level of normalcy, contact with trade areas, contact with instructors. Our kids are different, they need to be touching their curriculum every day,” Langone said.

Langone said for the administration, the whole flow of the year is off. Normally, they would have been graduating kids the first week of June, have a couple of weeks with the undergraduates, then do the planning and cleaning, and be ready to go by the first week of August.

“That wasn’t the case this year. I’ve been in the building since April, rattling around an empty building, alone other than custodians. There’s something otherworldly about being in a school that’s missing its kids,” Langone said, adding, “I’m really anxious to see them and interact with them and go back to a normal routine. It’s the difference between standing on concrete and quicksand.”

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