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Alaska vocational schools will open with no online option for hands-on learning

In-person learning such as the AVTEC Combination Welding Program seen here will continue at Alaska vocational schools this fall, albeit under precautions because of the ongoing pandemic, as online learning is not an option for the hands-on skills being taught. (Photo courtesy Alaska Vocational Technical Center)

Classes will go on at Alaska’s colleges and training centers where the coursework regularly requires working with one’s hands, but the first day of school will be far from normal.

Kenai Peninsula College Director Gary Turner said many lessons taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage-affiliated school that specializes in industry training, process technology and other field-oriented areas of study were already being done online but a large amount of work in those types of course cannot be done remotely.

“It’s more challenging with the technical, vocational type of classes but the vast majority of our process technology is delivered online and these classes have been for years,” Turner said, adding that most of KPC’s other courses are a hybrid of online and face-to-face instruction. “Industry and learning objectives of mostly the industrial process instrumentation courses — industry demands that these students, graduates, get hands on training with the stuff, turning the dials and gauges and working with our big simulator in our career tech center, so those are things that we still have to do.”

Still, he said the number of students receiving any face-to-face instruction this fall will be down significantly from more than 1,300 last year to just more 330 when classes start Aug. 24.

Kenai Peninsula College, which offers classes in Homer and Seward in addition to its main Soldotna campus, is increasing the number of lab sessions and in-person classes this year to reduce the number of students in a room at any time for those who will be going to class. Rooms will be limited to 25 percent of normal capacity and students will be spaced at least six feet apart, Turner said.

Students’ digital key cards used for access to campus facilities will be programmed to turn on 20 minutes before class starts and shut off 20 minutes after a class is over; common areas will be closes as well.

“Students will come to class, be taught and then need to go,” Turner said, also noting that is a departure from how things normally operate.

“Students, regardless of age, they like to talk a lot and sit down and study together and do study groups. That’s over unless they want to go do that on their own at home, but I hope they don’t.”

Kenai Peninsula College is following the guidance from the UAA chancellor’s office on more general coronavirus procedures and precautions, he added.

Masks will be mandatory in all KPC buildings as well, Turner said and there will be none of the traditional public events at KPC this fall, either.

“That’s sad because our colleges are such important parts of our communities; so that’s tough to swallow,” he said.

The uncertainties and challenges surrounding the impending school year have largely increased ongoing enrollment declines across the university system and Turner said KPC’s student head count is down 24 percent from a year ago and the number of course hours students are taking is down 27 percent despite the fact that recessions often result in more people seeking vocational training.

He believes many potential students are waiting to enroll — some may be holding out to see if they will have to home school their own kids or not while others might be waiting to see what the ever-changing coronavirus-related requirements and procedures are closer to the start of the semester.

“Within a week of the (Aug. 24) start date I expect we’ll see enrollment increase. It seems to make sense but with covid nothing seems to make sense,” Turner said.

The enrollment situation is leading KPC officials to budget for a $2 million deficit on what was a roughly $16 million budget in 2019. Turner said he is trying to fill most of the gap by not refilling positions when they become vacant.

On the other side of the Kenai Peninsula, in Seward, AVTEC Director Cathy LeCompte said the state’s vocational and technical education school will be operating at half of normal enrollment for its long-term programs but not for lack of demand. There would still be waiting lists for several AVTEC programs if the school was running at full capacity, she said.

What demand there will be for AVTEC’s popular maritime training center and bridge simulator is less clear, according to LeCompte, as it is largely used by industry for short training sessions. In a normal year, up to 1,100 people will go through the maritime center, she said.

AVTEC officials are “cautiously optimistic” they will be able to bring students back on campus in the coming weeks, and whether or not that happens will be impacted by the virus case count in Seward, LeCompte added.

“We have some programs that we’re able to do online, but for the most part our courses are pretty hands-on intensive,” she said.

If students are allowed back, they will be divided into “cohorts” based on their respective areas of study and will live in an area of dorm housing away from other students to limit interactions as much as possible, according to LeCompte.

AVTEC’s dorms will be limited to half capacity and, as at most campuses, common areas will be closed as well.

“Our gymnasium is currently a hospital — a makeshift hospital for the City of Seward and Providence Hospital — so there’s no gymnasium available and no activities taking place,” she said.

LeCompte is featured in a short video on AVTEC’s homepage detailing other virus precautions being taken in which she makes it clear masks will be required across the school.

“As a state agency, it’s nice to have the governor’s health team on our side when it comes to face coverings,” she said.

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