Safety Leader

Calculated Distance: Lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic

Apprentices learn in a socially distanced classroom at the Electrical Training Alliance of Jacksonville. Courtesy of ETAJ

When the novel coronavirus struck the United States in March, the Carolinas Electrical Training Institute (CETI), Charlotte, N.C., and the Electrical Training Alliance of Jacksonville (ETAJ), Jacksonville, Fla., were operating at full tilt. Nearly 450 staff members and apprentices populated both campuses.

Responding to the pandemic, both schools shut down by mid-March and began monitoring federal, state and local health department guidelines.

“With construction trades considered essential, most of the electrical contractors continued to operate here in Charlotte,” said Tina Williams, CETI director. “It became clear, the preparation of apprentices for the workplace should not stop, not even during a pandemic.”

By early April, Williams was setting up online classes for the school’s 116 apprentices. The priority was keeping fourth-year apprentices on track for their scheduled June graduation.

“There were just seven in this group, which made it a lot easier to work out the bugs in setting up Zoom for classes,” Williams said.

In addition, these students returned to campus in June, filling one classroom with tables set 6 feet apart. The small group also was able to safely work in the spacious lab area.

Apprentices, three staff members and occasional visitors wore masks and had their temperatures checked.

Having a campus with 24,000 square feet of instructional space worked to CETI’s advantage.

Meanwhile, in preparation for fall classes, the institute installed hand sanitizer dispensers in common areas and classrooms; sneeze guards for instructors in classrooms; and touch-free automatic faucets, paper towel dispensers and toilets in washrooms. Besides having instructors disinfect classrooms, the school scheduled frequent cleanings and installed a disinfection fogger to treat larger areas.

By July, first-, second- and third-year apprentices began transitioning to virtual classes.

Williams relied heavily on journeyman Adam Taylor to accomplish the transition. He injected more material into the Zoom classes to better prepare apprentices for the hands-on part of their work-study arrangement.

“We really wanted to make sure time spent online was worthwhile and that it wasn’t wasted,” Taylor said. “With lab access cut back, covering more material and keeping everyone prepared for work became essential.”

“Our goal was to get everybody back to classroom learning in September,” Williams said.

In early September, CETI began phasing apprentices back to campus in two-week stages, starting with new fourth-year and finally the 59 first-year students.

CETI’s actions mirrored the reasoning of NECA’s Craft Certification Committee, comprised of NECA management and IBEW training directors from around the country.

“We were deemed essential, so regardless of legislation or any variation in how states were handling COVID-19, contractors had to continue working, and the apprentice programs had to keep going,” said Ryan Courtney, NECA’s executive director of labor relations. “Any shortfall this year would create a big shortfall in labor four to five years from now.”

The industry learned that lesson the hard way after shutting down apprentice training programs during the 2008 recession, Courtney said.

ETAJ also focused on keeping apprentices on-track and healthy.

Apprentices in the five-year program returned to a changed campus setting on May 16, with mandatory masks, social-distancing, smaller classes, frequent disinfection and automatic soap and paper towel dispensers.

“Getting apprentices to wear masks wasn’t a problem because they understood CDC guidelines, and state and local requirements were 100% on this,” said Dan Van Sickle, ETAJ training director.

“They fully understood the need for temperature checks and other mandatory COVID-19 requirements, so the adjustment was nothing new,” he said.

That understanding enabled ETAJ to prevent the spread of two COVID-19 cases.

The school year, which normally ends in early June, was extended three weeks. Like CETI, ETAJ packed additional learning into the curriculum.

Beyond the pandemic, COVID-­related prevention practices—such as not sharing tools and staggered breaks—may prevent cold and flu transmission. Williams also believes virtual training may help prevent lost instruction days due to bad weather.

COVID-related training and the reopening of IBEWs succeeded due to focus on a single priority, Courtney said.

“It all had to do with safety. Keeping everyone safe,” he said. “Once NECA and IBEW chapters rallied around this, things seem to fall into place.”

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan Degrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. sdegrane@att.net

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