In summary

A lot of Career Technical Education programs require a great deal of hands-on experience. In a situation where in-person teaching is inherently dangerous, that’s required a lot of innovation on the part of educators.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, 300 people a day got food and snacks from the student-run bakeshop, cafeteria and restaurant at Diablo Valley College. 

The three eateries collectively let students in the school’s culinary arts program practice their vocation while earning $250,000 in annual revenue that went back into the program. 

But when the pandemic thrust California into a lockdown, the student production of pastas, breads, entrees and breakfast items went dormant at Diablo, instruction moved online and college campuses across the state sat empty.

Because of its hands-on nature, career technical programs like Diablo’s culinary program have struggled to adjust to severe restrictions on in-person learning. More than 75,000 California Community College students in the prior school year earned a degree, certificate or completed an apprenticeship tied to a vocational discipline, according to California Community Colleges data.

Students bustle around the classroom in an advanced culinary class as they prepare thanksgiving dinners to be frozen and distributed by the campus food pantry at Diablo Valley College on Nov. 18, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Diablo’s culinary program eventually brought its students back to the classroom, but the process was long. It’s a pattern other career technical programs can relate to: shut down for the spring and move what’s possible online, then spend the summer planning for a partial return to in-person learning, often with fewer students.

“I think it’s going as best as we can manage under the circumstances. It’s definitely not an ideal situation for CTE,” said Sheneui Weber, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development at California Community Colleges. “Our programs require a lot of hands-on, in-person instruction,” a tall order during a pandemic, especially when nearly all counties sit in the state’s most restrictive state category of in-person activity – the purple tier.

Now more than eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, this is how different vocational programs at California’s community colleges have adapted to their circumstances. 

Lots of problems

Hands-on classes have many of issues to solve to make in-person learning safe. 

Colleges spent a lot of staff time planning traffic flows for students, reducing class sizes and changing course schedules. Some also purchased new interactive software to mimic some in-person learning. Others acquired expensive air filtration devices. 

As a result, costs for career programs have increased during the pandemic. 

Because classes have to contain a fraction of the students they normally would, colleges would need to hire additional faculty, but that requires more money. So there are fewer classes overall. 

Weber said more career technical programs have begun running modified in-person classes, but data on enrollment won’t be available until early in 2021. Based on a partial analysis, total enrollment for the system is down 10% to 15%, said system chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley at a board meeting in November. Student job losses, discomfort with online learning and non-existent savings are some theories for the decline.

From selling meals to cooking for a food pantry

When COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, forced the culinary arts program at Diablo Valley College online, student learning was limited. Students submitted videos of themselves baking or cooking products at home, but instructors couldn’t evaluate the performance on taste. 

“Culinary arts is one of the few arts that actually requires all five senses,” said Squire Davidson, manager of the program at Diablo Valley College. “You’re not tasting music.”

Students also struggled to purchase basic groceries in the early months of the pandemic. “Dairy, eggs, those kinds of things were just gone, you couldn’t get it,” Davidson said, because of chronic shortages at stores. Meanwhile, suddenly unemployed students didn’t have money to buy food, making it impossible to complete the assignments. 

As a stopgap, the program began assembling food kits for students to pick up to prepare assigned meals at home. 

Students bustle around the classroom in an advanced culinary class as they prepare thanksgiving dinners to be frozen and distributed by the campus food pantry at Diablo Valley College on Nov. 18, 2020. The culinary program used to run a restaurant and food counter as part of the course work but due to the coronavirus pandemic has begun preparing meals for the campus food pantry. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

That lasted until the fall, when the college allowed Davidson to bring back five students into the kitchen five at a time, down from the normal 25. In lieu of practicing their skills at the campus eateries, students in the culinary arts program are instead preparing 50 to 70 meal kits a week for the campus food pantry. Each kit contains enough food to feed a family of four. Davidson thinks his students are actually becoming better chefs during the pandemic because of increased individualized instruction. 

 It’s “a win-win scenario,” Davidson said, because students are both activating all five senses again and giving back to the community.

One of students preparing food pantry meals, Soon Gi Hwang, joined the culinary arts program in January after working at a clinic for individuals on the autism spectrum. His long-term goal is to meld his academic training and culinary studies to create a vocational school for students with disabilities so that they become financially independent. 

He’s proud of the meals he prepares for the pantry, especially the meals for Thanksgiving this year. 

“We buy all the raw ingredients and we start from scratch, we make all the sauces, stocks, compote, jams,” Hwang said. “It’s real quality food.”

COVID-19 safety in a big kitchen

The culinary arts program at Cerritos College in L.A. County is larger than the one at Diablo. 

When the coronavirus first hit, the 168 students enrolled in classes inside the industrial kitchen were academically stranded and received course incompletes. For the rest of spring and summer, Michael Pierini, director of the culinary arts program at Cerritos, cooked up a contingency plan to bring students back safely. 

First, he had students return in six-week waves based on how far along they were in the program. He also effectively cut the program requirement of 800 hours of kitchen experience in half, shifting 400 hours online. 

Pierini also — like Diablo Valley — adjusted the classroom to allow for pandemic distancing. The Cerritos kitchen, intentionally spacious to replicate the experience of a large hotel kitchen, normally fits 84 students. With pandemic restrictions, it accommodates 20. 

Brody Stephen, a student in the cooking fundamentals class, chops herbs in an almost-empty classroom at Diablo Valley College on Nov. 18, 2020. Culinary classes used to have 25-30 students but are now limited to 8 due to social distancing measures. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Prior to the pandemic, food mixers stood in the rear of the kitchen for all students to use, which would have meant sanitizing the devices for four minutes after every use, “which wasn’t very realistic,” Pierini said. Now, each student is assigned to a station fully-stocked with the equipment a chef would need, like mixers. Above each workstation is a hood ventilation system to cycle in fresh air from the outside.

The pandemic also changed the delivery of goods: Vendors now leave their shipments at the loading dock and drive off without interacting with college staff. An employee brings in the vegetables, sealed meats and other foods and runs them through a four-minute liquid bath with hydrogen peroxide. Only frozen foods are spared. Delivery boxes are left outside. 

The students themselves “look like surgeons with a white coat on,” Pierini said. In addition to their normal chef uniform, students wear gloves, masks and face shields when they’re in the kitchen.  

Automotive instruction goes partially online

Other programs have invested in better online tools. 

Joe Mulleary, the department chair for the automotive mechanical repair program at Cerritos college, purchased simulation software, called Electude, after a trial run in the spring won him over. 

“You’re having to click on certain parts of the car, make certain calculations, it’s more interactive,” Mulleary said of the software. The cost was roughly $16,000 for 250 student licenses for one calendar year. The software has helped mitigate the impact of smaller in-person classes.  

The pandemic has been a mixed bag for his students. Social distancing rules mean that students can’t work in groups on car repair, so they’re forced to solve problems on their own, which boosts their learning, Mulleary said. But online instruction is a steep learning curve for some students.

With tests and quizzes administered online instead of in person, some students forget to complete their tests or quizzes at home. Mulleary tries to make the assignment flow predictable by scheduling quizzes only for Thursdays, but he won’t allow make-ups. He does offer extra credit for students who complete additional online learning modules.

“Without the CARES Act, without the grants that we’ve had, without the support of the community, we wouldn’t be up and running at this point.”

noel kelsch, Dental Hygiene Program Director at cabrillo college

A dental hygiene program downsizes

Noel Kelsch estimates that the dental hygiene program she runs at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz purchased $50,000 in hardware and air filtration technology so that students could return to in-person learning in late July.

Dental hygiene students receive an education comparable to nurses and the average salary for dental hygienists is $108,000, according to state labor market data. As part of their clinical hours, students in the program practice their craft on patients from the community who receive discounted dental services while instructors supervise. Before the pandemic, about 3,000 patients would visit the college annually. 

“We can’t be face to face and do the social distancing, or physical distancing, in this environment without that equipment, it’s too big of a risk,” she said. The dental hygiene program typically enrolls 44 students but this fall had only 20 because it didn’t enroll a new class. We needed to serve those who we were already committed to,” Kelsch said.

The program installed eight-foot high plexiglass walls around the 21 dental chairs in the lab, tall enough to protect patients and students from overspray while leaving enough of an opening to ventilate and purify the air.  

Tough road ahead

Even with the adaptations, it hasn’t been easy for the programs or the students. 

Mulleary, the car repair chair, said enrollment is down 20%. Like other career technical programs, culinary arts at Cerritos didn’t enroll new students in the fall, though there are plans to enroll 40 new students, down from the typical 80, this coming spring. 

Pierini, the Cerritos culinary director, is worried about the current job prospects for fledgling chefs in an industry decimated by the pandemic: The broader leisure and hospitality industry in California shed more than 500,000 jobs between October 2019 and October 2020

In response, Cerritos is encouraging its culinary arts students to transfer into the hospitality bachelor’s programs at nearby Long Beach State and Cal Poly Pomona, campuses that accept many of the courses Cerritos students take in culinary arts programs. It’s a strategy to wait out the dearth of industry jobs and increase students’ hiring and wage potential once the pandemic subsides and the service sector begins its slow return to form. 

Additionally, much of the money that allowed for pandemic adaptations like these was a one-time influx of cash; The spending at Cabrillo’s dental hygiene program, for example, was covered by the federal CARES Act money colleges were given to purchase COVID-related supplies. Donations from the local county and American Dental Education Association allowed Kelsch to buy personal protective equipment for students. 

“Without the CARES Act, without the grants that we’ve had, without the support of the community, we wouldn’t be up and running at this point,” Kelsch said.

Weber, the community college workforce development vice chancellor, has a team working on a handbook for campuses that aggregates some of the workforce training innovations colleges have developed during the pandemic. It’s in draft form now and should be released in February. 

But for as long as the pandemic is limiting how many students can physically be in a class, the career programs will suffer.

“I’m concerned about the longer this pandemic goes the longer it impacts negatively on CTE programs because of the in-person components,” Weber said.

This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship. The fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to post-secondary career and technical education. It is administered by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and funded by the ECMC foundation.

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Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...