Pandemic impacting student work placements

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>Grad 2019. This year, many of the students attending NSCC in Bridgewater will be delayed in graduating pending completion of their work terms, as a result of the pandemic.</p>

While schools closed by the pandemic are scrambling to help students complete this year's education, the situation is even more challenging when students are required to successfully complete a practical, hands-on work placement in order to graduate.

Businesses and organizations that traditionally have taken on students have closed up shop. And Nova Scotia Health Authority institutions, which are required training grounds for some students, have strict access restrictions that effectively have deferred any such practical experience.

The Nova Scotia Community College, Lunenburg Campus in Bridgewater advises on its website that all new work placements are being suspended until June 1, 2020. "Students will have until August 7, 2020 to complete their placement."

The principal of the campus, Craig Collins, declined to comment on the situation, and instead referred LighthouseNOW to NSCC's headquarters in Halifax.

"As you can imagine, we have all of our campuses across the province. We want to make sure that we have consistent practice so we're coordinating [the response]," Collins said. "So we are taking our direction from our central team in Halifax."

Taralee Hammond, the NSCC's associate vice-president of student services and academic support, said the college is working closely with regulatory bodies "to figure out how we can make something happen and when it can happen. But there's still many, many conversations happening."

According to Hammond, the NSCC offers more than 130 programs and all of them have some level of a work experience component.

"Finding work placements will be challenging, if not almost improbable, for many of the students because of the public health protocols and just the impact to the businesses and all the community partners," Hammond told LighthouseNOW.

The majority of the programs have a traditional, five-week work placement at the end of their one- or two-year programs, depending on whether it's a certificate or a diploma program. Typically, the students reach out directly to employers to secure their work term, but they may also be supported by faculty members and their network of employers.

However, as with all of the province's post-secondary institutions, the NSCC's health programs that require a placement in the Nova Scotia Health Authority would have placements prescribed by the NSHA. Each institution submits the number of placements that they need and the names of the students, and the Health Authority determines the placement.

A student at the NSCC's Lunenburg Campus, Jenny Miller is one of the many students across the province who has had her required two work terms cancelled.

The second-year student was due to graduate in June from the college's Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Assistant program. However, both her first work term at the IWK Hospital in Halifax, which was due to start March 23, and the second at Queens General hospital in Liverpool, due to start April 27, were cancelled.

"I was pretty disappointed, but I did understand the circumstances," she commented to LighthouseNOW.

According to Miller, the NSCC has since decided students in her faculty will only require one placement this year, but like her classmates she didn't know when or where hers will take place.

"It's pretty stressful considering I was supposed to graduate in June and find a job in my profession. It's sad, but I mean everyone's going through it. It's not just us," she said.

Hammond said the college is trying to make as many adjustments as it can to support students in getting their practical experience. As such, the NSCC has identified a range of options for the students to meet the learning outcomes required for each of the courses.

"Many of them have been used in the past, so it's not [always] brand new," said Hammond. More current, however, is the option for students to complete their work experience remotely.

"Employers are still willing to take the students, and they'll just be doing the work, like all of us, from home."

Some students can do a project that fulfills a case study need, or a project related to a business that they might be going into. Additionally, employment or volunteer work that the student has secured previously or recently could be applied to the requirement for hands-on training.

"And in some cases, we're looking at course substitution, so there might be a different course that will give the same learning [outcomes]," suggested Hammond.

Nonetheless, she admitted, there will be some students, like those training to be practical nurses for example, "that will just have to defer the work experience."

Having said that, she added, "Everyone's coming to the table with a trying-to-make-it-work scenario. And it's really just kind of working through the how."

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