About a dozen masked health science academy students practiced taking each other’s blood pressure at the Career Academies of Decatur on Wednesday afternoon, but the classroom looked a little different than usual.
Students sat in groups of three or four on opposite sides of the classroom to maximize social distancing while completing their skills lab. Although there’s no way to avoid the close physical proximity required when taking someone’s blood pressure, health science medical internship instructor Kiersten Jones said students won’t switch groups throughout the year. That way, the same few students will sit together daily and groups will remain distanced from one another.
While Decatur City Schools has more than 2,000 students taking only virtual instruction, many Career Academies programs require at least some in-person instruction. Students can’t cut hair or weld remotely. As a result, Career Academies and Excel principal Ressa Chittam said, they’ve had to adopt flexible and creative methods such as the separate health science groupings to make the school year work.
“In areas where maybe it is a little more difficult to social distance we can work it out so that they could … come up with a plan where (Jones) has some students coming in to do their lab time and their skills check maybe on a Tuesday, and the other half of the class comes in on a Thursday,” Chittam said.
Anthony Bellman, a senior at Austin High and a health science academy student, said the class is much smaller than it was before the pandemic.
“It’s very calm now; we don’t have as many students as we used to,” Bellman said. “Teachers can spend one-on-one time with each student if they need help. We’ve been learning a lot more.”
During a normal year, Jones spends the initial part of the year training her students on safety, privacy and HIPAA regulations before they begin working in medical facilities. However, medical internships have been postponed due to COVID-19, and it’s unclear when or if students will be permitted to go to hospitals and clinics this year.
Sydni Diaz, a senior at Decatur High and a health science academy student, said the internship postponement has given students more opportunities to learn hands-on skills. “It’s a lot of skills now, so when we are able to go back in the hospital we’ll be better off. You just have to look at it like that,” Diaz said.
Bellman said he plans to become a pediatric nurse, and is considering attending Troy University after graduation. Diaz said she plans to become a surgeon, and is considering taking the pre-med path at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
Career coach Angela Cushing said the career-based nature of the academy programs makes it easier to plan and implement COVID-19 safety precautions, because staff can learn from industries that are going through the same process.
“We did our first tour for the season with Mazda Toyota, and they were giving us some ideas about what they had been incorporating, and they’re working with other manufacturers and trying to come up with some (of) those industry standards,” Cushing said. She gave the example of manufacturing plants using sheets of plastic between employees who are working on a machine.
For the brand-new welding program, safety is an important consideration even without the pandemic. The welding classroom has individual booths where students are surrounded by three walls and a plastic curtain while working. Though the booths were built to keep students safe from flying sparks and debris while working, they also make it easier to maintain social distance.
Matt Gatlin, the precision machining academy instructor, said students sanitize their equipment on a daily basis.
“Each one of these students, when they go into shop, gets one of these plastic buckets,” Gatlin said, pointing to a stack of plastic containers. “All the tools that they use during the period, they put back in the bucket. Then, we wipe those tools down before we put them back up so once they start using anything … (they) wipe it down before the end of the class.”
It’s harder for students to socially distance in other academies. For example, barbering students can maintain 6 feet of distance when they’re practicing on mannequins, but when one student is cutting another’s hair, they are just a foot or two away from one another. Career tech supervisor Shelton Cobb said students wear their masks when they can’t maintain social distance.
Work-based learning instructor Lee Lott said her 150 students who are participating in co-ops are in higher demand this year than ever before due to the pandemic. Co-op students go to work at various Decatur businesses for part of the day, and receive school credit for the time they spend at work.
“I had one lady tell me that she needed somebody, because the person that was leaving needed to stay home with their children because they had chosen to be virtual … so she was teaching school,” Lott said. “I think it’s opened up a door for some of our high school students to get in jobs that they haven’t had, because parents are staying home to teach their children.”
Lott said her students have had unique opportunities this year, due to the high demand for employees: “I hadn’t had anyone in a dentist’s office in a long time … but I did this year, and those jobs are few and far between, so it’s nice for our students to have these opportunities.”
Chittam said the new welding academy allowed Career Academies to accept more students overall. However, due to some students opting for online instruction, Cobb said enrollment is about 850 this year, which is similar to that of last year. They initially projected more than 1,000 students would be participating in the academies this year. Cobb said fully virtual students are unable to participate in most academies, because there is no way to complete the hands-on course requirements online.
Though fully virtual instruction isn’t an option, Cobb and Chittam said blended students are able to complete the instructional portion of their academy classes online, and come into class once or twice weekly to complete the lab component of the course. Chittam said to minimize contact between different students, some academies are able to have half of their students come in one day per week, and the other half come in on a different day.
“That also makes us different from the regular classroom, in that our students really need to be hands-on students, and so they need to be here in the traditional environment and we had to be creative about how to work that out,” Chittam said.
Career Academies of Decatur is in its third year and continues to add new programs each year. Cobb said students can earn professional credentials through existing academies, like the automotive technology academy.
“Those give them a leg up on everybody else that doesn’t participate, and so … they’re ready when they leave here and that’s our goal,” Cobb said, adding that Career Academies will add a heavy equipment academy next year, where students will be able to earn forklift certifications, CDL licenses to operate semi-trucks, and learn how to operate cranes, dump trucks and similar equipment.
“We’re sort of like a mini community college,” Cushing said.
Currently, Career Academies offers 15 programs, including building science, cosmetology, cybersecurity, culinary arts, fire and emergency management, sports medicine and teacher training.