Martha Silva completes practicum hours portioning food for the Chefs Share initiative that provides meals to El Paso Community College students in need. (Photo by Fernie Garcia)

Students and instructors who are involved with El Paso-area career and technical education courses have had to change their approaches to course work in light of schools and laboratories dealing with COVID-19 restrictions.

Career and technical education, or CTE, focuses on educational institutions dealing with skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technologies, and career preparation.

Vaviana Marquez is trying to finish up her practicum hours as a graduate student at El Paso Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. Doing so, though, is taking a bit longer than usual.

“Right now, we’re going to do our lab work for two hours at a time,” Marquez, who lives in El Paso, said. “It’s difficult right now because usually we need five hours when cooking.

“The first thing we do is sanitize the area we’re working in, which takes two minutes,” she said, “but at the end it takes 30 minutes to sweep, mop, and clean the cooking surface area. We always do that because we work with ready-to-eat food.”

Brandi Bryner prepares pear Bavarian in the culinary kitchen for her plated desserts course at El Paso Community College. (Photo by Fernie Garcia)

EPCC Culinary Arts Program director Chef Daniel Guerra said instructors and students are still doing a lot of coursework online.

“Students try to cover their lab work in two days, where they will focus on one class one day and another class on the next one,” he said, adding that the changes implemented at EPCC have meant more work for students.

“We’d usually give raw products to students, yet since we had to move them to two-hour modalities, we’ll give them cut products so they can knock out two to three pieces for class while there where it might take them longer,” he said.

Stephanie Walton, director of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Professional And Public Programs, said that a lot of hands-on courses received a second look because of COVID-19.

“We have to put some things on hold,” she said. “Right now, though, all of our courses are still going virtually, live, online and in real time.”

As director, Walton said, “The thing I knew that had to be done was that my communication needed to be specific and often. Our team knows that one constant is change. Being stagnant and waiting it out was an option, but we stayed committed to delivering programs in these times.”

Students in Sotero Ramirez’s paramedic training class at El Paso Community College wear face masks and practice social distancing, part of new protocols in career and technology education programs at the college. (Photo by Fernie Garcia)

One of the first things Myshie Pagel, dean of Education and Career and Technical Education at El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde campus, did was to determine which CTE programs needed to have students on campus immediately.

“I asked all instructors to send in proposals and protocols,” Pagel said. “We uploaded lectures online and had time to set up labs for later use. Our faculty worked beyond the official end of the semester.

“We had two weeks to make a total transition to having courses available online,” she said. “Right now, there are 10,000 online students already, yet there were some students who hadn’t done online courses before so we set up tutorial videos. I understand students who also have jobs needed to be there when they usually would be at school, so working together with other instructors and administration members helped us develop an idea for a virtual classroom.

“The college, as a community and work culture, is very supportive around knowing how each person can help another,” Pagel said. 

Following COVID-19 restrictions can be tricky for students like Marquez, but she understands the reasons behind them.

“I have to do this lab work in order to finish my course hours,” she said. “I feel secure about the steps they are taking here at EPCC to prepare our area and I do trust that they are taking our health and well-being into account.”

Cover photo: Martha Silva completes practicum hours portioning food for the Chefs Share initiative that provides meals to El Paso Community College students in need. (Photo by Fernie Garcia)

Joe Rutland is a freelance journalist who lives in El Paso. He's a former assistant city editor with The El Paso Times and has worked for newspapers in Texas and Arizona as a reporter, columnist, and copy...