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Pima JTED students learn how to take vitals during a video call.

Students in Demi Vaughn’s medical assisting class learn a variety of healthcare skills, from drawing blood to checking vitals. And at the end of a school year, they can earn multiple medical certifications that can lead to direct employment in the healthcare field. But when the pandemic hit, all of this became uncertain; how can students meaningfully practice giving injections over the computer? For Vaughn, shifting to a virtual classroom came with its obvious difficulties—but also some lessons that she continues to utilize even now that her students are back to learning in person. 

“It took a lot of adjusting, because I usually taught everything hands-on right in front of them,” said Vaughn, a medical assistant instructor for the Pima Joint Technical Education District. “Now, I’ve learned so much this year that I want to bring into my teaching going forward that I never would have known about or thought about. I’m a relatively new teacher, but I was already kind of stuck in the way I taught. I liked that I was pushed to try something new, like technology and different ways of teaching. And now I get to bring it all together and I think it will make me a stronger teacher because I have so many perspectives.”

Pima JTED is a technical education district that serves more than a dozen public school districts throughout Southern Arizona, including Amphitheater, Marana, Tucson, Nogales and Flowing Wells school districts. The high school students who enroll in Pima JTED’s extracurricular courses can earn class credit, industry certifications, and even college credit. 

For Pima JTED, 2020 looked similar to other schools: information about the virus came trickling in through February and early March, and by spring break the decision was made to not return to in-person classes. The hands-on learning stopped, and nursing students were pulled from their required clinical hours—many of which took place at long-term care centers. 

“This was probably the hardest thing our teachers and students ever had to do, but they made the best of it,” said Pima JTED superintendent Kathy Prather. “We were really impacted because everything we do revolves around hands-on. It provided special challenges because students come to us for that kind of hands-on experience. But we immediately went into a mode of maximizing what we were doing.” 

The first hurdle was to make sure virtual classrooms would work. Many students and even staff did not have adequate internet at home. The district sent out a survey regarding hardware and internet needs that would allow virtual learning. In the end, Pima JTED spent roughly $250,000 on software (such as Swift K12, Remind and Big Interview) and hardware (internet hotspots) for online teaching. 

For the reduced school staff who continued to work in-person, the district also spent $200,000 on protective equipment (plexiglass and face shields), but that cost was lowered thanks to government reimbursements, loans and donations. 

Pima JTED’s classes range from aviation technology to HVAC to cosmetology and dental assisting. Prather says a critical piece for these classes moving online was YouTube videos. Teachers would film themselves doing an activity, then the students would make their own videos replicating the activity. 

“When you go to an online environment, one of the biggest challenges is communication and engagement. With this, it was as if they were in class, but it was all through remote YouTube videos,” Prather said. “Another cool thing was when our culinary instructors would record a video like a cooking show. But then we heard that when the students were making theirs, the family would join in.”

Another surprise the teachers found is how much the students could educate them about the computers they were using. Prather describes modern students as “digital natives,” those who grew up with technology in their hands nearly from birth. Vaughn says her students would help her with various tech issues, from the new software the class was based around, to simply being muted during video calls. 

“We kind of worked as a team through the online process. It unified us and helped us become closer by getting through it together,” Vaughn said. 

Fully online learning continued through the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. Students only returned to Pima JTED’s campuses with a hybrid learning model in October 2020.  

Vaughn’s medical assisting classes are traditionally four hours long: roughly one hour of lecture, then three hours of lab time. But after so much online learning, she realized with a hybrid schedule she could keep all the lectures online, and save in-person time exclusively for hands-on work. 

“When they came to class, they knew exactly what they were supposed to do because we were able to go in such depth online,” Vaughn said. “I actually do want to bring some of that back to the classroom, because it was nice to have them look at it from that perspective and then go into the lab. I feel like they were more confident.”

These complications have not stopped Pima JTED’s growth, however. Despite the pandemic, the district’s student body increased. In the 2019-2020 school year, all Pima JTED central and satellite sites constituted 16,406 students. For 2020-2021, that number increased to 16,446. 

“We’re constantly evolving and changing, but our teachers do a fantastic job of keeping up with industry,” Prather said. “A lot of people think that JTED is only for kids that will go to work right after high school. And yes, we do have a number of students with that goal. But a majority of our students plan to go onto post-secondary, and we want to make sure we are offering a pathway approach and continue our partnerships with Pima Community College and the University of Arizona.”

Pima JTED also started an Air Transportation/FAA Drone Operator program, where students can learn the principles of aircraft design and performance, aircraft flight systems and controls, and radio communication. Through this, they can earn FAA certifications for drone pilot, ground school and basic ground instruction.

“With the college loan crisis that has grown in this country, a lot of people are looking for a career in technical education. Students can enter good-paying jobs. And that’s not to say they won’t go to college, but they can now afford to pay for it,” said Pima JTED director of public relations Greg D’Anna. “We’ve become more and more attractive over the years. Our students are in high demand.” 

Following the swell of infection numbers over winter, students were forced to return to virtual-only learning once more. 

“They were more upset in December because they had already gotten a taste of what it was like to be back,” Vaughn said. “But they understood why it was necessary, and I kept reassuring them that no matter what it takes, I’d get them to that finish line.”

Fully online learning continued through February. Then the students were able to return to hybrid learning, and finally, in April, students were able to return to class full-time. Despite the school year almost being over, Vaughn says that first full day back felt like the first day of school, with many students seeing their classmates face-to-face for the first time. 

“I am grateful, because I learned a lot through it: connecting with students, my teaching, the school system overall,” Vaughn said. “And if anything, we need to come out of this as a positive that we became stronger. I think it made all of us better teachers.” 

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