Palliser off-campus programs carry on

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Coaldale Fire Chief Kevin McKeown goes through medical scenarios online with a Kate Andrews High School Fire Academy student.

COALDALE – The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to find inventive ways of delivering education, and Palliser Regional Schools’ off-campus programming is no exception.

Palliser is offering a growing number of off-campus courses in an effort to provide engaging, hands-on learning opportunities not available to students in a traditional classroom setting. When the province cancelled in-class lessons

to limit the risk of infection, the Kate Andrews High School Fire Academy was was among those programs impacted.

While the plan was for Coaldale and District Emergency Services personnel to teach the curriculum at the fire hall, renovations at the facility meant the first-year program had to be held at KAHS. Restrictions arising from the pandemic ruled out that venue, and with social distancing and other requirements the real-life lessons had to go virtual.

“We were so close to the end of the program, we’ve kind of had to adapt and find an alternative means to finish the program,” said Coaldale Fire Chief Kevin McKeown.

On this occasion, that meant him running each student through practical, medical scenarios using an online meeting platform. The final exam for the medical first-responder component of the fire academy program will also be done online.

“I think it was really important for the students to finish it because they were so heavily invested in it,” said Jason Kupery, Palliser’s Director in charge of off-campus programming. “The material was engaging, exciting, they were learning something really new, and they were learning something they were interested in. To not finish that would have been a real disservice to students.”

Fortunately, because the Fire Academy is a year-long program the majority of the material had been covered and there was no question of taking shortcuts for students to complete it. It was important to ensure the integrity of the course, he said, not only because this is the first year it’s being offered, but completion results in a medical first responder certificate which is a prerequisite for many related occupations.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would want a medical first responder who hasn’t completed their course looking after me, as opposed to one who did,” said Kupery, noting there isn’t a better time than now to be adding another 11 individuals capable of saving lives.

Fire Academy students already had to put in extra hours to get in the necessary training before the pandemic surfaced. The Coaldale fire chief was impressed by the commitment they showed once that workload had to be increased.

“I am pretty proud of this class as far as motivation and attendance has gone,” said McKeown. “Now having to switch to mostly online, they have to put the time in outside school and use some personal time to make sure they’re getting through the modules and making sure they’re getting online at certain times to get their course work done.”

Palliser’s other off-campus programs have also continued, with the exception of the ironworkers training which was cancelled before it started. The school division’s off-campus co-ordinator checked to ensure working conditions were safe for those students enrolled in the Registered Apprenticeship Program, work experience, or Green Certificate training for agricultural opportunities.

Instruction in dual credit courses – which allow students to earn high school and post-secondary credits at the same time – has also continued. Just as Kupery praised McKeown for his commitment to the Fire Academy, he thanked partner institutions including Bow Valley College, Lethbridge College and SAIT for doing what’s best for students during these uncertain times.

“They have been excellent at adapting their materials and being pliable in terms of figuring out how we can get students to finish,” he said.

Students in all of the off-campus programs wanted to ensure their investments weren’t going to waste either, said Kupery, including those enrolled in the unit clerk program at Lethbridge College since September.

“They don’t want to walk away from it. They appreciate the course and what it can do for them in the future and what it is doing for them now as far as broadening their horizons,” he said.

The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have raised many questions as to what the next school year will look like in the fall. While Kupery said that’s no different for off-campus programs, he’s confident the demand for such learning opportunities is only growing.