The University of Ottawa campus is quiet, Wednesday, April 22, 2020 in Ottawa. The federal government announced funding for post-secondary students affected by Covid-19.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Post-secondary students requiring practical skills concerned about education

Many Canadian students concerned about how practicums could be affected when classes resume

Abbey Ferreira has wanted a career in the medical field since childhood, so she followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother and chose to become a nurse.

As COVID-19 forced school closures, Ferreira, 19, returned home to North Vancouver in mid-March near the end of her first year in the University of Calgary’s nursing program and finished her courses online.

Like thousands of students across the country, especially those in programs requiring hands-on training, Ferreira is concerned about how practicums could be affected when classes resume.

“Right now, there’s just a lot of questions,” she said about physical distancing requirements that would also impact her life in residence.

“You need to take practicums to become a nurse. I’m just wondering how they’re going to do them and what changes there will be.”

The University of Calgary said it is reviewing all experiential learning options as it prioritizes the health and safety of students.

Each faculty is assessing off-site practicum opportunities and if that is not yet possible students may be provided with alternative experiences “to help ensure they are not delayed in continuing their program,” the school said in a statement.

Amanda Baskwill, associate dean of allied health in the faculty of health sciences and wellness at Humber College in Toronto, said students in courses such as massage therapy have faced a few challenges in online classes compared with other courses.

Baskwill said instructors for the three-year program adapted as much as possible and demonstrated techniques via video with someone in their home.

“They were videos of skills the students were able to view and if there was someone in their home, they could practise with that was an opportunity for them to try something new,” she said.

Students learning a trade are also being challenged by the limitations posed by lack of in-class instruction.

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Ed Dunn works as an instrumentation mechanic who maintains equipment at the Canfor pulp and paper mill in Prince George as part of his apprenticeship training through the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Classes were cancelled on March 16, just as he was supposed to return to Metro Vancouver for three weeks of schooling.

Dunn and his classmates began learning theory online instead of getting access to the mechanical equipment in the program that stresses practical experience.

“I’d never done online classes and I’m sure a lot of other students are in the same situation,” said Dunn, who ensures quality control of paper based on instruments he maintains at Canfor.

Despite the uncertainty, he’s looking forward to the start of further classes at BCIT to meet his goal of becoming a journeyman after four years of education.

“We’re supposed to go back on June 15 for the practical side of things but it’s going to be completely different, with all the new restrictions and regulations and the safety precautions that will be in place,” he said.

“For me it’s not so bad. I have to just do one more year and tough it out but if you’re starting at the beginning it might be a little different,” he said of programs that prepare students to work in a variety of heavy industry jobs.

Those enrolled in either the technician or apprenticeship programs will have to adapt until they can access equipment that will prepare them for the jobs they’re seeking, Dunn said.

“If you’re behind a laptop you could probably do some simulator training but you’re not going to get that hands-on experience that something’s wrong with your instrument and you have to either calibrate it or fix it.”

A spokeswoman for BCIT said the school is preparing to announce its plans to students as soon as possible.

Jim Armstrong, who heads the industrial instrumentation department at BCIT, said he and his colleagues are working on plans to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Physical distancing requirements involve having to source out personal protective equipment, Armstrong said, adding there must be “serious buy-in” from students to maintain health and safety protocols.

“Right now, I know we’re having difficulty sourcing masks and things like that so the question then becomes, how do we achieve that? That’s something that is foremost for BCIT,” he said.

“In the trade that I’m teaching there are people working on figuring out how we can do the distancing but it’s not easy. There are people literally working around the clock to find solutions.”

Equipment will have to be cleaned after every use to reduce the risk of the virus that causes COVID-19 from being passed on, Armstrong said.

“I’ve got 30 litres of isopropyl alcohol in my garage right now that I gotta take over to BCIT to make sure they can spray everything and wipe it all down before they touch it,” he said of computer screens, keyboards and tools.

“That’s going to put some very interesting operational constraints on the students and their learning. And if they all buy into it, it can work.”

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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