At Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington, Mass. — where we had recently opened our brand new, state-of-the-art ($145 million) facility following a decade-long effort of collaboration, design, and political advocacy — the coronavirus pandemic closure was (is) disappointing, as well as sad. Seven months into the school year, as our students, faculty, and staff were just getting accustomed to the new building and its cutting-edge career and technical educational opportunities, we were required to depart the new school and implement our remote learning plan. It’s a major credit to my faculty and staff at how quickly we were able to adjust to this new and hopefully short-lived model.
We are a regional district that provides career and technical education (CTE) to five middle schools and seven high schools in 10 member communities. We also operate the Minuteman Technical Institute, a state approved, post-secondary career and technical program. Our district is located west of Boston in a historic area of the country.
While thousands of schools are learning how to provide remote learning to millions of students, CTE programs are tasked with trying to replace “hands-on” learning. It’s not really possible; however, we all are attempting to meet the challenge in a variety of ways. In our state we have connected all CTE teachers in each program area through the state's professional association, the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. They are sharing best practices, ideas, links, curriculum, lesson plans and stories about what is and is not working. In some instances, teachers are sharing lessons live to all students in the same CTE program across the state. This shows the promise of collaboration.
In the days leading up to our initial school closure, our administration rallied our “Digital Learning Curators (DLC),” a group of tech-savvy teachers who are committed to improving the utilization of technology in teaching and learning across all disciplines. The DLC was given freedom from teaching duties to formulate a long-term Remote Learning Plan, which was developed with input from all sectors of the district, including students. We have now used it for more than three months, and will continue to use it, with some enhancements for the remainder of the school year, as the governor ordered all schools to extend their closures through June.
This is not to say remote learning has come without its challenges, particularly for teaching and learning in the traditional trades — advanced manufacturing, electrical, plumbing, automotive, carpentry, etc. — as opposed to computer-based CTE like graphic communications, web design and programming and our academics.
Many other superintendents are reporting it’s been a challenge, particularly for seniors, to stay fully engaged. Massachusetts officials initially advised school districts to consider remote learning as “enrichment” and to not count student performance toward their overall grade due to equity issues around internet access and the needs of special education and English learner students. However, we are now shifting back toward the use of grades in order to hold students accountable for their work, maintain engagement and ensure they are meeting minimal graduation requirements.
In a CTE school district like Minuteman, it’s imperative that students are completing required hours toward trade licensure exams and industry-recognized credentials.
While the move to remote learning is beyond disheartening — for students and teachers alike — it is not without opportunities to try new and creative ways of learning and engagement. Minuteman uses numerous tools such as Aspen, Microsoft Teams, GoFormative.com, EdPuzzle.com, Quia.com and additional resources suggested by state education officials and associations. We are adding to our YouTube channel by posting cooking tutorials from a culinary arts instructor, at-home exercise videos by our football coach, yoga videos and more. In one impressive example, a design and visual communications student used acorns in her driveway to perfectly recreate our school’s logo, which depicts one of the historical Minute Men from the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
We are all reminded of the value of Information Technology, and I must acknowledge the excellence and professionalism of our school’s IT team, which has been critical to ensuring all of our students and staff are using the approved technology to carry out remote learning. We must use technology that is safe and secure from cyberattacks and can monitor and archive communication with students. The IT team set up a phone hotline for students and staff to troubleshoot tech issues or to ensure students had the proper technology at home. The team was in absolute overdrive for the first few weeks of this crisis.
It also takes a tremendously dedicated and experienced staff to ensure students are getting the education, services and engagement they need to stay connected to learning. I am grateful for the dedicated teachers and staff who make sure our kids are succeeding every day.
These are interesting times that call upon all of us in leadership positions to stay connected to our students, staff and stakeholder groups, and especially to ourselves. As I reflect on the past few months and the incredible challenges we all face, I can only offer a reminder that we have the unique ability to choose how we stand up to these challenges. We certainly will choose to serve our kids as best we can with the resources at hand. We can advocate for all learners to maximize equal access and we can provide balanced information to parents and staff that is timely and based on science and best practices.
Even doing all this, it feels like we are often falling short. It is precisely at these moments our choice is most important, for we can choose to give into fear or we can choose the opposite of fear. We can choose love. And it is the constant, daily, intentional choice of love over fear that will bring us all through this.