Pandemic Pivot: How CTE Programs Have Adapted During the Time of COVID-19

Pandemic Pivot: How CTE Programs Have Adapted During the Time of COVID-19

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of people’s lives is clearly an understatement. Education is one sector that has been particularly affected. As the research community conducts education studies in the coming years, it is critical to understand and account for the ways in which education programs, opportunities, and experiences changed during the pandemic and differed from “normal” operations. This necessity holds true for research focused on career and technical education (CTE). Any CTE researcher examining data from the pandemic period or conducting longitudinal studies that include data from 2020 and beyond must be prepared to account for pandemic-related shifts.

To help understand these differences, the CTE Research Network interviewed administrators and staff at 22 selected CTE programs around the country to learn how they responded to the pandemic during spring 2020 and the following 2020–21 school year. A new report summarizes our analysis of these interviews, which we conducted between November 2020 and February 2021. The findings highlight how CTE program delivery and activities, along with student participation and engagement, differed from normal operations during the pandemic, as well as how those differences changed as the pandemic evolved. We also highlight innovative approaches that CTE programs developed, including some that may continue as part of a “new normal.”

How CTE programs responded to common COVID-related challenges

The interview findings reveal the common challenges that CTE programs faced as well as the broad range of responses they implemented, underscoring the need not to make assumptions about program conditions or student experiences during the pandemic period. Specifically, CTE programs struggled with the loss of hands-on learning and reduced access to work-based learning opportunities while dealing with the same technology challenges and learning shifts that affected education programs and systems more broadly.

Shift to virtual and hybrid learning. In spring 2020, as school buildings across the nation closed in response to the pandemic, CTE programs shifted to remote learning and a virtual delivery format. For most CTE teachers and students, virtual learning was new and untested. In our interviews, few CTE programs reported any prior experience with virtual or hybrid delivery, and just a handful had previously instituted a technology standard of providing one device per student.

By the 2020–21 school year, however, many of the CTE programs had expanded their capacity with virtual learning and were implementing an extensive range of delivery formats, described in detail in the report. For example, many of the CTE programs we interviewed invested significant resources in teacher training and support, “leveling up” their technology skills and capacity to integrate technology into the curriculum.

Loss of hands-on learning. One of the most significant differences for CTE students in the pandemic period was the loss of hands-on learning opportunities. In spring 2020, most hands-on activities were canceled. While some of these opportunities were again offered in 2020–21, they often looked quite different from a typical year. For example, some programs sent home kits with equipment and supplies so that students could still have hands-on experience.

Reduced work-based learning. Likewise, most work-based learning opportunities, including internships, were lost or sharply reduced during the period we examined. Some CTE programs, however, pivoted their operations, using online platforms to provide students with virtual internships and job shadowing opportunities, to connect with industry mentors, and to bring speakers from business and industry into the virtual classroom.

New online resources and materials. With the shift to virtual and hybrid learning, CTE programs had a significant need for online tools and resources. The programs we interviewed reported that most CTE vendors and curriculum developers offered a range of online resources, often at no cost, including textbooks, videos, web-based activities, and virtual examinations in spring 2020. For the 2020–21 school year, many programs reported purchasing online materials as well as cameras and other equipment for teachers to record demonstrations and lessons.

Stronger student and family communication. Perhaps most important, we heard from CTE staff around the country that although pandemic shifts posed participation challenges for students, they also led to stronger communication with students and their families. This outcome provided a renewed recognition that school success necessitates a whole-child, whole-family approach.

Innovations that CTE programs developed

While inequitable access and lost opportunities were widespread in the shift to remote and hybrid learning, so too were innovations that have the potential to improve CTE student experiences and outcomes in the future. For example, as the pandemic hit, CTE organizations that support programs nationwide described how they sprinted to shift content online while developing modules and activities to support student engagement in virtual settings. Two of these organizations reported they also implemented virtual internships in summer 2020, which had the added benefit of expanding work-based learning opportunities for students in rural or remote settings.

We also learned about the ways that employer partners engaged with CTE programs and how busy partners found that participating as a classroom speaker or advisory board member was more feasible in a virtual setting than in person. Programs also shared creative ways that employer partners supported staff and students, such as developing online platforms to host students in a virtual career day, engaging in “adopt-a-pathway” initiatives to match business partners one-on-one with pathway teachers and lead staff, or creating new online learning modules leading to industry certification.

In addition, we heard how some state and local education agencies developed new policies on CTE grading and completion to acknowledge the significant disruptions students faced. In West Virginia, the state education department implemented a new “virtual completer” certificate for CTE students who had completed classroom hours but could not access the hands-on learning required for certification. These students have up to one year after high school graduation to complete their required lab hours and earn their official credentials. In other programs, administrators and staff volunteered to open facilities for small groups of students to sit for certification exams over the summer.

Implications for future CTE research

For researchers focused on CTE, this study provides a glimpse into what was happening in programs around the country during the pandemic and highlights issues that researchers will need to explore and consider collectively when examining this period. Given the importance of establishing counterfactuals and appropriately measuring CTE dosage in causal research, we highlight throughout the report issues that CTE researchers should consider when developing research questions and strategies for data collection, analysis, and interpretation. In addition, we suggest questions to explore regarding how programs responded to and pivoted during the pandemic, as well as considerations for data reporting and student outcomes.

We hope these recommendations for researchers can provide a starting point not only to understand what changed for CTE programs, staff, and students during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to examine what worked and should be continued going forward.