Schools take precaution with face-to-face instruction as they prepare truck drivers, nursing assistants, paramedics and other professionals who need hands-on training for the workforce

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TOPEKA — The COVID-19 pandemic forced Kansas community colleges and tech schools to adapt curriculum and teaching methods this semester, but it didn’t close classrooms altogether.

Many of the schools needed to find safe ways to continue training for skilled trades that were suddenly in high demand. Others shifted focus to online lectures during the statewide lockdown and now are bringing students back for hands-on curriculum.

"The Kansas economy needs the workers we're training, and despite such high unemployment, there are still skilled trades that have tremendous need for employees," said Heather Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees.

The 18 community colleges and tech schools in the state are responsible for preparing truck drivers, nursing assistants, paramedics, plumbers, electrical power linemen and others for the workforce.

Dennis Rittle, president of Cowley College, said instructors followed recommended safety guidelines and altered schedules to prevent more than 10 students at a time from using the specialized machinery needed for programs like nondestructive testing.

"We recognized early on that to ensure our students received the training their future employers expected of graduates from Cowley College's technical education programs, we'd have to find a way to continue to provide face-to-face instruction for some programs," Rittle said.

At Pratt Community College, staff transitioned courses online as COVID-19 began to spread across the state. The school recently began allowing small groups of students from automotive and electrical power programs to return to campus and complete the hands-on portion of their coursework.

Instructors take students’ temperatures before classes begin, said Pratt CC president Mike Calvert. Masks and gloves are provided, they practice social distancing, and work areas are disinfected daily.

"PCC’s concern for the health of our students, employees, and communities is of the highest priority during these challenging times," Calvert said.

Greg Mosier, president of Kansas City Kansas Community College, said the school is bringing EMT, paramedic, medical assistant and CNA/CMA students back to campus, so they can meet certification requirements for in-person practice and enter the workforce as soon as possible. KCKCC plans to reopen campus on May 18 to help students get ready for summer and fall classes.

"While we may not have been on campus, we never stopped providing the critical education and training to our students and community," Mosier said.

Morgan, the state association director, said community colleges and tech schools have suffered significant losses and issued some furloughs as they navigate the financial turmoil caused by the coronavirus. A struggling economy typically translates into higher enrollment, she said, but it isn’t known if that holds true in a pandemic.

Some students who were considering a four-year school are now looking at tech schools because they are far less costly and provide job skills that align with essential services, Morgan said. Additionally, employees who have been laid off are looking to add an employable skill.

The Kansas Department of Labor last week reported 117,555 Kansas workers were receiving unemployment, and an additional 16,416 had filed initial claims.

County health officials in Kansas have reported 174 deaths from COVID-19, and 6,829 positive tests.