Whittier Tech Teachers and Students Reflect on Pandemic Life, Successes and Lessons Learned

Jennell Gonzalez, a junior from Haverhill in Whittier Tech’s health assisting program boards a bus in February to go to a clinical co-op for the first time since the pandemic started. (Photograph courtesy of Whittier Tech.)

As Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School transitions back to full in-person learning by the end of the month, the institution is reflecting on the events of the past year.

The kind of hands-on learning vocational education requires meant staff had to adapt on the fly to new technologies and adjust the curriculum for learning in-person and remotely. Michael Sandlin, a senior carpentry instructor in his fifth year of teaching at Whittier, explained.

“One downside to remote teaching was that I was not able to teach my trade the way that I was taught and the way that I typically teach which is hands-on. One positive take to remote teaching was that it pushed me to learn new technologies that I was able to implement to help teach carpentry remotely.”

Sandlin said he is proud of the way shop instructors rallied together to help each other and students for a high level of quality even with the limited time in the shop.

“All teachers have had to juggle new methods of teaching, while taking care of themselves and their students,” Superintendent Maureen Lynch said. She explained, “Whittier teachers have gone above and beyond this school year as they determined ways to teach hands-on vocational skills and challenge students intellectually through academics, all while maintaining student wellbeing as a top priority.”

Teachers and students recently shared their thoughts on teaching and learning over the past year.

Jane Moskevitz, a health assisting instructor who has worked at the school for 25 years, observed “…It has been somewhat socially isolating. There are many teachers whom I have not seen since March 12, 2020.” Moskevitz was still able to place 20 students in health assisting co-ops, 12 students in dental assisting co-ops and seven in medical assisting co-ops since February.

Liani Flores, a freshman dental assisting student from Haverhill, noted she is performing better at Whittier than in middle school and credits the teaching methods. However, she said, “What is frustrating is that we are unable to see everyone in our freshmen class—and everyone is very quiet in the virtual meetings.”

Madisyn Weldon, a senior Cosmetology student of Newbury, said while she appreciates staff is performing as best as they can, “my senior year hasn’t been what I imagined it would be.”

Benjamin Zichella, a sophomore plumbing student of Amesbury, transferred to the school this year. Despite all of the changes due to the pandemic, Zichella said he appreciates  that “the school has got us back here a lot quicker than other schools have.”

Many students said learning in person is far preferable to remote learning.

“It is not like any other year I have experienced. I have definitely struggled with remote learning. Now that I am in shop, I am much more in my element,” said Bruce Clough, a sophomore electrical student of Newburyport.

Several educators expressed pride in their students amid the challenges of this school year.

“First and foremost, I’m proud of my students for staying focused, taking the time to understand complex chemistry concepts, and trying their best to stay positive,” said Jonathan Warne, a science teacher. “We have been able to form real connections despite all of the required COVID protocols.”

Warne also created a series of YouTube videos this year, taking students on virtual field trips and helping them perform simple chemistry experiments at home.

Many educators pointed to technology as both a serious hurdle and a significant opportunity for growth this year.

“We were able to use new technology and programs to help keep our students learning and engaged during remote time,” said Chris Gerber, a welding instructor who has taught at the school for three years. “Some of the programs we used we like so much that we will probably incorporate into our courses permanently. The students were very adaptive, which made my job easier.”

Kathryn Dye Parsons, an English teacher, coach and special education liaison who has worked in the district for 13 years is one of the many educators who stepped up to help her peers prepare for and navigate remote and hybrid learning.

“I am personally proud of the amount of professional development I created and participated in during the spring and summer, whether it was technology or equity based,” Parsons said. “I am proud of my students and colleagues’ perseverance to come in every day putting their best foot forward. I am proud that I have almost survived a pandemic full time working with three children 6 and under at home.”

Lynch said more than 60 Whittier educators worked on the district’s reopening plan over the summer and staff developed an advisory program to support students as they've navigated the challenges and stress of the pandemic.

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