SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Like other education institutions around the country, Cascades Job Corps College and Career Academy in Sedro-Woolley is trying to figure out how to best serve students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were literally hundreds of work groups trying to figure out how to facilitate a training program to over 35,000 students across the United States,” said Director Darrel Lutton at a virtual meeting in June.
Job Corps, a program of the U.S. Department of Labor, provides tuition-free education and job training to students ages 16-24 who face barriers to education and employment at more than 140 campuses nationwide.
After a revamping pushed at the federal level, the Sedro-Woolley campus relaunched in 2017 as a pilot program with a focus on information technology and health care and a new college-like environment where students live on campus with their co-host for several years and earn credits through both the Sedro-Woolley School District and Skagit Valley College.
It has since added culinary and homeland security to its list of offerings.
In many ways, being the pilot program — still the only one like it in the country — has helped Cascades Job Corps weather the storm of COVID-19, Lutton said.
Because of its partnership with Skagit Valley College, half of its students are enrolled in college courses, giving them experience with online learning management tools like Canvas, he said.
By last fall, about 70% of Cascades’ curricula was already online for students to access.
“When all of this hit, all of the other Job Corps centers were looking at how they can offer this online,” Lutton said. “We were in fine-tuning. So we already had a jump start on this.”
While most of its 272 students were sent home, those without access to technology devices were mailed packets of school work, Lutton said.
The national Job Corps office is in the process of purchasing Chromebook laptop devices to make sure students have access, he said.
“We’re looking forward to enhancing their learning environment from paper and pen,” Lutton said.
Cascades does not have any of the “hard trades” like electrical, masonry or carpentry that were previously offered at the site, Lutton said. That kind of course work requires in-person training and experience that is not possible during the pandemic safety standards.
“It’s really difficult to try to teach those skills via camera or virtual learning,” Lutton said.
Despite the campus closure, about 20 Cascades students remained on site and were taken care of as they were before the pandemic, he said.
“They didn’t have a safe place to go,” Lutton said. “Cascades was their safe place.”
There have been no cases of COVID-19 on the campus, he said.
“It is our ultimate and utmost goal to make sure this campus stays safe,” Lutton said.
As schools prepare to reopen in the fall, staying safe in the era of COVID-19 will require planning, and, although it has no set date to reopen, Cascades has already begun that process, Lutton said.
“What that also means is a total reconfiguration of every campus and every aspect of a student’s life — how they eat, how they learn, how they recreate, transportation — all of those different areas need to be addressed for social distancing and making sure that the campuses remain safe,” he said. “A ton of work has gone into this and (the national office) is being very careful and very cautious.”
At Cascades, that will mean a change in how classes are delivered. Cascades is working to make sure that the rest of its curricula goes online and that live lessons are demonstrative, interactive and also recorded for students to watch on their own time.
“We’re trying to be flexible and provide as much as possible for students,” said College and Careers Director Melina Zahalka. “But at the same time, trying to recognize every one’s life is upended and very strange. Our driving factor is resiliency and adaptability.”
Even the campus itself will change, Lutton said. For example, classrooms that once fit 20 students may now fit six.
That loss of physical closeness may present a struggle, Lutton said.
“It’s creating a new norm on the campuses,” he said. “(Cascades is) more of a family environment that we create. We’re very group oriented, we’re very emotionally connected, and all that’s now done 6 feet away.”
To reopen, campuses must apply to the national office and prove they can do so safely, Lutton said. Nationwide, that process has been put on hold.
Once Cascades is approved to reopen, it will do so slowly, said Cascades’ Business and Community Liasion Macklin Hamilton, meaning small groups of students will be reintroduced to the campus at a time and quarantined for 14-day periods.