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Reopening plans for local school systems are still in development, and educators are pondering how to handle construction classes that require hands-on and close-up student participation.

School District 49 is developing several scenarios that will be deployed depending on the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions from state and local authorities.

One thing is clear, said Steven Gard, principal of Patriot High School, which houses the D-49 construction program: “We are going to be a mask-wearing culture.”

District 49 is planning to offer a full roster of construction coursework.

Widefield District 3 hopes to do that and also is still working out the logistics of conducting classes through Careers in Construction, a program launched in 2015 by the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs and supported by the construction industry.

All of D-3’s construction classes are conducted at the MiLL National Training Center (MiLL stands for Manufacturing Industry Learning Lab), a 12,000-square-foot space where students gain the practical skills they need to earn pre-apprenticeship certifications in building trades.

District 3 Superintendent Scott Campbell, who has guided students to the program since its inception, said he believes the district will be able to offer all of its career technical education courses with appropriate safety measures and adjustments as further guidance is received from El Paso County Public Health and the state.

The need for these programs is critical in the building industry.

With a local labor shortage of about 20 percent, “we recognize that no matter what the economic conditions are outside, construction will be returning, we will be having work, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got that labor force that’s being trained and developed,” said GE Johnson Construction President and CEO Jim Johnson.

Certified graduates of these school construction programs “are certain ticket holders who are still going to have ample opportunities to jump into the construction industry,” Johnson said.

TAKING PRECAUTIONS

District 49’s construction classes are taught in a spacious building on the Patriot High School campus, just off U.S. 24 at Falcon, with two large bay doors that can be opened to provide ventilation.

The HBA helped finance the building, which was completed last year, and works extensively with the district on construction education.

The district’s construction track includes two years of training, Gard said.

In Year 1, students focus on using hand and power tools, reading blueprints, taking measurements, learning math that’s specific to the construction industry, and achieving PACT (Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training) core certification in basic construction skills. They also receive training in OSHA workplace safety requirements.

In Year 2, students move on to bigger projects and sharpening their skills.

“We’re building a shed that had to be put on hold when the shutdown occurred,” Gard said. “That’ll be their first project — to finish the shed,” which was commissioned by and will be sold to a district employee.

“They’ll get into a little more of the wiring, like switches and outlets, and shingling the roof,” he said.

Year 2 students serve as mentors for the less experienced first-year students on projects like the shed.

By the end of the two-year course, the objective is for students to have achieved PACT core and PACT carpentry certifications.

“We use a new curriculum put forth by the [Home Builders Institute] that walks them through … what they’re going to be assessed [on] for the certifications,” Gard said.

In case classes need to go virtual, “at least we have this online curriculum; the hands-on part would suffer a bit,” he said.

“If it’s not a total shutdown, we have plans to still be able to let small groups come out and work,” Gard said. “If we have to do classes virtually, maybe we could take Friday afternoons and have it be that they just come specifically to work on whatever projects they’re on.”

Gard said he is still recruiting students for this fall’s program. Ten students are returning for their second year, and three new students have submitted applications. Gard thinks as many as 20 students ultimately will sign up.

“We’ve already surpassed last year’s numbers,” he said. “We’re reaching out to a couple other charter schools and the three big high schools who might want a student to come here for part of their day just for construction.”

The district is looking to grow the program and ultimately plans for students to build tiny houses when there is a consistent student base, he said.

SCHEDULING EXTRA TIME

El Paso County Public Health’s most recent guidance for schools, issued July 22, recommended that schools postpone their opening dates until at least Aug. 17. That would give the department and school districts four weeks to assess the impact of mandatory masks and other mitigation efforts.

District 3’s calendar currently calls for a start date of Aug. 17, with seventh- and eighth-graders starting school Aug. 18.

Mask wearing and social distancing will be practiced in all District 3 classes, Campbell said.

At the MiLL facility, “there are a lot of things they do out there that they could do without needing to be within 6 feet of each other,” he said. “I’m not so much concerned about that; it’s more of a scheduling issue.”

The district likely will have to reduce the number of students per class throughout its secondary schools.

“But we’re also exploring extra times that we can offer these courses, potentially outside of the school day, if that’s possible with the teachers’ daily schedules,” Campbell said.

As of last spring, when classes were scheduled, about 150 ninth- to 12th-graders were planning to take construction courses, he said.

The district has already had an opportunity to see how social distancing and mask-wearing will play out in construction classes.

This summer, students who weren’t able to complete their certifications in the spring attended boot camps offered by Careers in Construction and funded by the CARES Act.

“We brought them in for a week, with all of the appropriate measures,” Campbell said. “Depending on guidance from the health department, there’s always the opportunity to bring in small numbers of kids — less than 10 at a time. … For the summer, we stuck to a class size of 10; that was the guidance at the time.”

Campbell hopes that the district will be able to bring everyone back, “but there’s a little virus that dictates that,” he said. “So we’re waiting and watching the data.”

SKILLS-BASED CONTENT

The three boot camps presented this summer allowed 25 students who had their learning disrupted by COVID-19 to complete their certificates, said Glenn Hard, executive director of Careers in Construction.

The boot camps were offered to all of CiC’s members, which include eight southern Colorado school districts. In the Pikes Peak region, Harrison District 2, Widefield District 3, Colorado Springs School District 11, Manitou Springs District 14, Academy District 20 and District 49 are members.

“We were able to support other industries as well: automotive, cybersecurity, construction and computer science,” Hard said.

The Home Building Institute is planning to roll out two versions of its construction curriculum in the next week.

“One version is a combination of electronic resources and live classroom lessons that can be utilized in a traditional school setting, if kids are in the building with instructors, which is everyone’s hope,” he said.

“If we find ourselves in a distance learning situation again, there’s an electronic version of the content that will enable kids to continue to make progress or begin making progress toward their industry certificates.”

A significant amount of the curriculum is proficiency-based and needs to be demonstrated, Hard said.

“For a student to demonstrate that they can properly use a specific tool, that needs to be witnessed by the instructor,” he said. “In the event that we have a distance learning environment or situation this fall, schools are going to have to be able to find ways to give kids opportunities to demonstrate proficiency with those skills. That’s going to be the greatest challenge.”

The curriculum is flexible enough, however, that students could master the virtual parts of the content during the first semester and work on skills-based content in the second semester.

Since funding through the CARES Act is available through the end of this year, “we will be able to continue to provide opportunities outside of normal school hours,” Hard said.

Careers in Construction also will continue to manage the Home Build project, started last year.

Students have started building complete homes at the MiLL facility and at  James Irwin Charter School’s Power Technical Early College. Coronado High School has been approved for a third home build.

“COVID totally disrupted progress, so no homes have been completed,” Hard said. The plan is for the homes to be sold when they are finished and proceeds to be put back into the program.

INDUSTRY SUPPORT

GE Johnson, a Cornerstone Elite Sponsor of Careers in Construction, has sent safety personnel to teach a class for 60 students to earn OSHA 10 certification.

“What that does is not only make them safer on the site, but it makes them more employable,” said Laura Rinker, GE Johnson communications director.

Johnson said the industry realized after the Great Recession that “we didn’t do a very good job of investing in our own future. … Now, we want to make sure we’re always addressing that pipeline.”

The training provided by Careers in Construction, along with the organization’s programs to help graduates find jobs, supplements GE Johnson’s own recruiting efforts.

The company will continue to support school construction programs however it can, Johnson said.

“Everybody is trying to navigate the ever-changing health regulations and guidelines,” he said.

“We are really just trying to support and provide our expertise on how it’s interpreted, whether that means supplying additional PPE so they can get back to the classes, or … sharing with them the things we’re doing on our job sites.”