With schools and businesses shuttered statewide, studies have ground to a halt for thousands of students studying a trade.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the school where Rob Saul teaches. This version has been corrected.

The head of a mannequin has taken the place of a person as Dorian Haywood, 30, practices the dental assistant skills he was learning at Manatee Technical College.

With school closed and dental offices open only for emergency procedures as the state grapples with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, students like Haywood are left on the sidelines.

“This changed the whole tempo of everything. You can get the book knowledge through the online course, but this is something that is very hands-on,” Haywood said. “To master the craft, you have to do the hands-on.”

Like Haywood, the thousands of aspiring mechanics, paramedics, cosmetologists, machinists, welders and electricians studying at Florida’s technical colleges are in limbo. They are unable to get the real-world practice they need to be certified, and there are no clear answers at this point.

The Department of Education has emphasized “grace and compassion” as K-12 schools shift their learning online. In Sarasota, teachers are not supposed to give students a score of less than 70%, as long as they make an effort, and students who don’t complete their online courses will be given extended time to make up the work.

But the governing boards, councils and accrediting bodies that set standards for various industries know that the marketplace is not very forgiving. Customers who pay for a haircut, a brake job or an electrical repair probably won’t make exceptions for knowledge gaps caused by COVID-19.

“We are not seeing any state certifications being relaxed, which is fine for us because we are only in week three of this process,” said Manatee School District Deputy Superintendent for Operations Doug Wagner. “We are not for it. It should be the same requirements that went through it before. Our students can rise to the occasion.”

Suncoast Technical College Automotive Service Technology instructor Mark Mullen has been holding three video-conference classes per week on Zoom, as he tries to help his students stay sharp heading into the ASE Industry Certification test.

“The place to make the mistake isn’t at the dealership; it is at our school. The dealership cannot have you making mistakes,” Mullen said. “… But I am not going to have any student go out and dissemble their parents’ car in order to accomplish the task.”

Like Mullen, many area technical college instructors have hastened to get as much of their courses online as possible. For some classes, like Gil Burlew’s advanced manufacturing and production class at MTC, there is plenty the students can do from home, as they use SOLIDWORKS to design various products, including faceshields, as practice.

The only thing students aren’t doing is “putting the stock on the machine, loading it and hitting the button that says now run it,” Burlew said.

But remote, individual and online courses are the opposite of the environment where many technical college students thrive.

“They choose MTC because they like the interaction and the hands-on,” said Kim Bland, the program director for dental assisting at MTC. “They don’t want to be the typical college student who does most of the work online … they want someone to explain it to them and to see it and touch it and feel it, and that is how they learn.”

Lack of practice

As the state faces an unprecedented public health emergency, the number of new paramedics and nurses entering the field may drop off, as students struggle to get access to the required clinical hours.

Students finishing their paramedic coursework typically must complete 10 24-hour shifts of ride-along time, but departments are not allowing these students on the trucks, out of concern over spreading COVID-19.

The Sarasota County Fire Department currently has 15 students in the paramedic class at STC, and their training has been put on hold, Sarasota County Fire Assistant Chief Carson Sanders said. Manatee has similarly discontinued student ride-alongs. Both counties are following limitations put in place through an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis in order to limit exposure and preserve personal protective equipment.

Jay Bush, the director of Emergency Medical Services Programs at MTC, is hoping that area departments will let students back on the ambulances this summer so that the class of paramedics scheduled to graduate in June can earn their diplomas in August. In the meantime, he said training programs should not scale back requirements.

“In good conscience, I can’t let a student leave the medic program not knowing if they have done a certain number of skills, not having seen a certain number of pediatric patients,” Bush said. “… I don’t want to shortchange the students because I have a responsibility to the departments.”

Dental and police training programs are facing the same challenge.

The students in MTC’s dental assistant program were gearing up to begin full-time clinical hours at area dentist offices when the governor’s executive order closed all dental offices except for emergency procedures.

That left students roughly 200 hours short of the 300-hour minimum legally required by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

Kim Bland, the program director for dental assisting at MTC, said she is hoping CODA drops some of the hourly requirements for students who get hired by a dental practice, but no official word has come out yet.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission approved distance learning for some coursework, but classes like vehicle operations, criminal justice defensive tactics and firearm training will remain on hold until schools reopen.

MTC Spokeswoman Maura Howl said students in the welding and evening automotive technology programs “have reached a point in their curricula where they have to wait until they can get back in the labs to continue their programs.”

Schools in Florida will remain closed until at least May 1, but Wagner hopes that MTC will be able to reopen at that point so technical students can get the hands-on practice that they need. He said the school would institute social distancing measures to prevent further spread of the virus.

While technical colleges may have a harder time teaching students remotely during the era of social distancing, they are anticipating a massive uptick in enrollment once the pandemic has passed. With unemployment numbers skyrocketing, schools offering vocational training may be more in demand in coming months.

“Everybody is basically telling us to brace for impact. We are going to be busier than ever,” said STC computer instructor Rob Saul. “There is going to be so much shuffling of the workforce because of this that we are going to be buried.”

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This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.