As the 2021 spring semester at the East Valley Institute of Technology gets under way, there is hope that the biggest challenge facing our campuses this year – Covid – could be coming to an end. Now that vaccines are available for our teachers and staff, we can finally see days coming soon when we will be able to take off our masks and not worry about maintaining six feet between everyone. But it will still be a while before we get there, so for now, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to keep our campuses as safe as possible from the virus that has sickened and killed so many.
We remain as committed to our safety protocols as we do to keeping our campuses open for in-person learning during the pandemic. We remain committed to preparing our students for the real world while living, learning and working in the real world. And for a year now, the real world has included Covid.
EVIT was, if not the first, then one of the first, Arizona schools to reopen for in-person on-campus learning on August 17. This was not an easy decision, but the nature of what we do at EVIT made it a necessary one. EVIT prepares students for careers and additional higher education in health care, transportation, communications, culinary, cosmetology, public safety, aviation and industrial trades.
While some aspects of some of our programs can be taught online, most cannot. For our students to be prepared to earn industry certifications and enter the workforce, they must have in-person instruction and hands-on learning in labs and workplace environments where they use the actual tools and equipment for the job.
When Covid hit Arizona, we could not just tell EVIT students who are in their final years of high school that they wouldn’t get the training they need to meet their career and education goals – critical training that is only state-funded and tuition-free to them while they are in high school. So we spent at least $1.1 million to hire additional staff to lower class sizes and to implement enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Most importantly, we asked our teachers and staff to have courage and faith as they reported to work and donned masks to continue carrying out EVIT’s mission during the pandemic – to change lives by loving our students and serving our community.
Some rightly had concerns, but the overwhelming majority of EVIT employees wanted to be in their classrooms and on our campuses serving our students. Their love for our students defeated their fear and they performed their jobs in person, even as some became ill themselves. In this year’s State of the State Address, Gov. Doug Ducey spoke of the resilience of Arizona. I can think of no better word than resilient to describe how EVIT staff – and our students and parents – have performed during these challenging, difficult times.
When we returned to in-person learning this year, we asked EVIT students and parents to be as committed to our safety protocols as our staff. They were required to self-check for symptoms every morning, stay home if they had symptoms or if they or anyone in their household tested positive for Covid, to wear masks and to practice safe distancing, hand-washing and good hygiene while on campus. For the most part, we have had little problem implementing these rules because our EVIT families were willing to do whatever they needed to do so students could come to school every day. And so far, our numbers of Covid cases bear this out. We have had 223 confirmed cases – approximately 5% of our population of 4,518 students and staff – since reopening for in-person learning in August.
The business community also embraced our return to in-person learning because they want our students to be successful and because they know better than anyone how important EVIT training is to ensuring that the East Valley and Arizona have a trained, skilled workforce. To that end, our students’ practical and clinical experiences in Valley businesses and health-care sites will continue to be offered this semester as they always are in the spring. And, some of our businesses are doing even more to help. Auto dealerships and automotive businesses have set up work-based learning environments that our diesel and automotive students are rotating through every week. This is enabling us to reduce the class sizes of these large programs on campus so our students can be spread out for safe distancing.
While things have been going well, we know there are significant challenges ahead as Covid cases rise and spread in Arizona. We know things will likely get worse before the vaccine makes them better. But EVIT is a school of choice – and we will continue to honor the choice East Valley families made to send students to EVIT for in-person learning. We will remain committed to the resilience it takes to prepare our students for the real world.
Chad Wilson is superintendent of the East Valley Institute of Technology.