Co-op programs continue through pandemic at Hamilton schools

·4 min read

For 17-year-old Ethan Turpin, a high school student and aspiring welder, co-op has been a pandemic saving grace.

“He came home with a sense of confidence, of achievement, and things that he wouldn't be able to get anywhere else because he's not allowed to go anywhere,” said Linda Stenhouse, his grandmother.

Ethan is enrolled in a co-operative education program at Waterdown District High School, completing his placement at Flamboro Technical Services, a fabrication and millwrighting company. Stenhouse said he has been invited back for another term.

“He went from failing grades and ended up being an honour student,” she said. “We likened it to the fact that he was in the co-op program.”

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) says about half of its students are able to continue with co-op placements — both in person and virtual — amid a provincewide stay-at-home order announced by the Ontario government on Jan. 12.

The board has been offering in-person co-op placements since Oct. 21, “after a pause to ensure that student safety was considered, and appropriate protocols were in place,” HWDSB spokesperson Shawn McKillop said in an email to The Spectator.

In cases where an in-person placement is not possible, staff will determine whether or not the student can continue virtually or present “alternate learning opportunities” in order to meet curriculum expectations.

“There are some community placements that have been unable to place a student given the recent provincial state of emergency stay-at-home order,” he said.

“Horse-crazy” Meghan Wahl said she found out last week she would not be going back to her placement at Halton Equine Veterinary Services, where she cleaned stalls, filled water buckets and observed procedures.

“That was kind of hard because Meg had to say bye to everyone, like, then,” her mother, Nicolle Wahl, said.

Meghan was given the “green light” to begin a co-op placement at the horse vet in October.

“It was the vet part, the technical, hands-on seeing treatments and stuff, that was really interesting,” she said.

Her mother said masking and physical distancing — where possible — were required at the vet clinic.

“The fact that it was in a medical setting was the reason why both my husband and I felt comfortable with sending Meg,” she said. “That definitely made us feel reassured that she was in a safe environment.”

Abbie Boyko’s son, a grade 12 student with the HWDSB, landed a part-time job at his co-op placement, the auto department at the Canadian Tire on Barton Street, before his placement ended when the province further tightened restrictions.

“It's very disappointing because it's a great opportunity for students,” Boyko said. “He's just lucky that he did well in his co-op that they've hired him on.”

She said co-op is valuable for high school students, particularly those who are graduating.

“Not every child is going to go on to college or university, they're going to be out in the (workforce),” she said.

Students in the Catholic board, which paused in-person co-ops after winter break to “do some consulting,” were offered the option to go back to in-person placements last week after feedback from co-op teachers.

“They felt it was very important to continue with that provision, should the parents and the students still want it,” said Sandie Pizzuti, superintendent of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB).

The board has added more requirements, including face shields, a revised consent form, repeated COVID-19 training and additional workplace evaluation.

The board expects to have approximately 730 students in co-op this school year — about two-thirds of last year’s enrolment. Pizzuti said she understands the concerns some families may have over the decision to return to in-person placements.

“But what we needed to do was listen to what our co-op teachers were telling us based on student voice and student input," she said. “And we felt that for those who really wanted to get back to their workplace — and in the case where we felt their workplace was very, very safe — that we would still provide the opportunity because we want them to have a very meaningful, relevant experience.”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator