Career roadblocks: School closures disrupt students’ pathways to professions

by Sarah Earle

Plymouth State University student Kassidy Silva had just begun her junior-year practicum at Franklin Middle School when the first cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the United States.  She’d discovered that she loved working with middle schoolers and was learning the ins and outs of a multi-age classroom. Over spring break, she’d planned to create her first lesson plan to present when she returned. 

She never got to return. 

“I missed out on doing that first lesson plan and other things like bonding with the students,” said Silva, who lives in Litchfield and is majoring in elementary education. 

When schools closed in mid-March to slow the spread of coronavirus, the disruptions were not limited to the activities and relationships that normally occur within school walls. Vital networks linking public schools to institutions, businesses and the wider community also underwent upheaval. As a result, many young people have encountered significant hurdles on their chosen career pathways.

Silva’s mentor teacher, Michelle Davis, found ways to keep Silva connected to the class. They did Zoom calls together twice a week and collaborated on projects and assessments, and Davis introduced Silva to a variety of online resources and tools. 

“I feel like I gained a lot of information on remote learning that was really helpful,” said Silva, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in special education after completing her undergraduate work. 

Few of Silva’s peers were so lucky. The New Hampshire Department of Education advised Educator Preparation Programs to use their discretion and exercise flexibility in helping students complete their clinical experiences, in memorandums released in March. Silva’s friends were able to continue their practicums, but most had to watch online seminars and complete alternative activities because they were unable to reconnect with their mentors. “It was just a lot for the teachers to take on,” Silva said. 

Running Start

The pandemic-related closures affected other connections between public schools and outside institutions as well. 

As they map out their futures, many high school students participate in concurrent enrollment programs to get a jump on college at a reduced rate. Last year, 700-800 students from 100 high schools around the state participated in the Community College System of New Hampshire’s Running Start partnership, according to Beth Doiron, College Access Programs Director for the Community College System. Through the program, students can take college courses for just $150 apiece, and scholarships are available. Enrollment has been on the increase for the past few years. 

The pandemic created unique challenges for many of the students navigating the Running Start program. 

“We have to protect the integrity of the program and transferability of the courses,” Doiron said. 

One issue was grading. Due to the hardships of remote learning, some high schools moved to a pass/fail grading system for the remainder of the school year. That created a problem for Running Start teachers because concurrent enrollment credits, which are regularly transferred to four-year colleges, require letter grades. 

Other difficulties arose around course requirements. With school labs closed, some students didn’t have access to software programs or other tools they needed. Teachers and administrators had to find other ways for students to complete their course work. For example, teachers in the culinary program created step-by-step cooking videos and delivered boxes of ingredients to their students’ homes. 

“It was rocky at first, no question,” Doiron said last month. “But from what I’m hearing, things are going okay.” 

Career and Technical Education  

Students pursuing technical credentials faced similar hardships. 

Students in the LNA program at Berlin Regional Career & Technical Center normally have to spend 60 hours in area hospitals or nursing homes to complete their certification. With those clinical placements put on hold because of the pandemic, students will still graduate with their peers, but certification tests have been on hold while administrators work out the details. Even completing their hours through simulated work experiences will require opening up the school building, said Julie King, superintendent of the Berlin School District and former Career and Technical Education (CTE) Director. 

“We don’t expect that to be done in time for graduation,” she said. 

Students will eventually receive their credentials, but they’ll lose the experience of working in the field as well as industry connections that often lead to jobs.

Those intangible losses are perhaps the most worrisome, said Steve Rothenberg, Director of the Concord Regional Career and Technical Center (CRTC), which serves about 700 students from nine area schools and has partnerships with hundreds of area businesses and organizations. 

The CRTC was able to open its doors a few weeks ago for students in the LNA and EMT programs to complete their credentials, and about 80% of students in those programs have successfully done so, Rothenberg said. 

Over the coming weeks, the center will hold “boot camps” for other students who have not met the standards for their courses or want some additional enrichment, he said. And on May 31, the CRTC held a drive-up Competency Ceremony in the Concord High School staff parking lot, with more than 90% of students in attendance. 

The long-term repercussions of the pandemic on CTE programs are still unknown. Enrollment in the Concord Regional Technical Center is at an all-time high despite decreasing enrollments in area high schools, and that trend is expected to continue next year, Rothenberg said. 

In some ways, he thinks the remote learning experience has renewed people’s appreciation for the kind of applied learning students receive in technical programs. 

On the other hand, he knows those applied learning experiences are more vulnerable to change than courses that can easily migrate online. He’s also concerned about maintaining critical partnerships in the community during these uncertain times as well as relationships with students enrolled in CRTC classes. Since enrollment is voluntary, those challenges are unique to CTE programs. 

“Our students are very loyal to our programs. Building that loyalty wasn’t done lightly,” Rothenberg said. “If the value proposition isn’t there, kids won’t come to us. … In the big scheme of things, how’s the world going to see us?”

Reaching Higher NH has been sharing stories of districts’ transitions to remote learning as part of a new series. Read more: