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NORThwest Career collegeS federation COVID-19 Reopening plans: Season 2, Episode 13

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Joining us on this episode is Zachary Speron, president of the Northwest Career Colleges Federation.

The Northwest Career Colleges Federation is a passionate and effective advocate for private career colleges and schools in Washington. Since their founding in 1969, they have proudly represented the interests of hundreds of member institutions, their leadership, their faculty, and the thousands of students they serve.
They believe that career education is essential to the region’s economy and that it makes an enormously positive contribution to thousands of graduates entering the job market with the valuable skills and education and training attained from attending their member schools.

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Bob Martin: Joining us today for this episode of Imagine America to help us sort out these issues is Mr. Zachary Speron. Zachary is the president of the Northwest Career Colleges Federation and serves as president of Pima [Institute] in Renton, Washington. The Northwest Federation has been a passionate advocate for private career colleges and schools in the state of Washington since its creation in 1969. The Northwest Career Colleges Federation represents 55 member institutions and scores of private organizations, as well as thousands of students.

Mr. Speron, welcome to our broadcast.

Zachary Speron: Yeah, thanks for having me, Bob.

Bob: Hey, for the purpose of this podcast, may we call you Zachary?

Zachary: Yeah, that’s great.

Bob: Perfect. Hey Zachary, let’s start off today’s program with a very—a brief overview of the federation, since I’m pretty sure that some of our listeners may not be familiar with the Northwest Federation. And then, secondly, if you don’t mind, if you could give us an overview on what your member institutions have done to respond to the current COVID-19 crisis.

Zachary: Yeah, absolutely. So, the Northwest Career College Federation originally was representing both Washington State, Idaho, and Oregon, in terms of the private colleges and career colleges within those three states. As we’ve kind of evolved, over the last few years in particular, we’ve tried to kind of center a little bit more around each state having their own kind of identity. So we’ve specialized here in Washington and decided that it’s best to kind of represent the state’s needs, especially legislatively, when it comes to how we provide information to our member schools and connecting them with the appropriate resources.

We’ve been around, like you said, for over 50 years now. We have all kinds of different schools that represent our membership. So we have medical colleges like Pima Medical Institute and Charter College. We also have a lot of cosmetology schools. We have schools that specialize in commercial diving. There’s truck driving schools. We have schools that specialize in coding and teaching people how to join the tech world. So very eclectic group and very diverse group of schools that we represent.

And obviously, with a lot of those schools—and what’s been happening recently with COVID-19—we’ve had to learn how to transition our in-person classes into a remote environment. And for some of our schools, that may be easier than others. A lot of the appeal for a career college is oftentimes offering hands-on skills. So it’s kind of a catch-22 in the sense we want to be able to move our students through their programs quickly, because we’re career-oriented and we want them to get into a position as quickly as possible. However there’s definitely been a slowing down of our curriculum as a result of not being able to offer some of those hands-on skills. So, we’ve had to kind of think outside of the box for how do we convert things that we used to do in person with equipment that the students could manipulate into something that’s in a digital environment? And, so for some schools, like I said, that’s easier than others. But I think a big positive is that a lot of our schools have made that transition as easy on the students as possible and have gotten approval from the state and from their accreditors to kind of front-load more theoretical parts of what they teach in order to make sure that we continue everybody’s education. It’s not to say that there weren’t some bumps in the road, but, in general—because of the federation providing a lot of these resources and being kind of an epicenter for sharing best practices and collaborating with one school’s success, and making sure that we can kind of use that as a playbook for another school—I think that’s what’s been really crucial about having kind of that centralized resource is to be able to take things in and to share that with large groups that might not otherwise have access to those resources.

Lee Doubleday: Okay, now this is Lee Doubleday. I’m talking to Zachary Speron, president of the Northwest Career Colleges Federation.

Now, the purpose of this episode is to inform our listeners of the reopening process. I’m assuming this may vary from county to county, but can you sort of explain what the overall reopening strategy is for the State of Washington? And then maybe even more particular as to what some of the schools that you represent are doing?

Zachary: Sure, absolutely. So, basically our governor, Governor Inslee, described the reopening process as the turning of a dial compared to the flipping of a light switch. I think that’s a really good metaphor for, basically, what’s happening here in Washington. We’ve been a state that has been a little bit more cautious about lifting restrictions. We’ve seen other states start to lift certain social distancing guidelines and gathering guidelines, as well as what they are considering to be essential workers returning to work, in a much faster timeline than what we’ve seen here in Washington. So right now, our county in particular, is still in phase one of reopening. Some of our neighboring counties that have less active cases of COVID are in phase two. But ultimately those phases are the dial that’s turning.

So, we have four different phases that are supposed to be spaced out, basically three weeks apart from one another. And this all started at the beginning of June when the stay-at-home order was technically lifted, as to going into phase one of reopening. So, based on that, there are restrictions around our numbers of students that can be in a classroom at a time. For instance, there’s no more than ten people in a room at a time. So, there’s a nine-to-one instructor ratio for most of our classes that are able to hold labs. Social distancing is required at all times in phase one. So certain hands-on skills—for instance, if you were going to do a blood draw on a student—are prohibited, because you’re not able to violate the social distancing guideline in phase one. And, basically, what’s happening is that, once there are a lower number of COVID cases in any given county, the schools that are ready to move into the next phase have to submit a pretty robust safety plan that has to be approved by [inaudible] in order to move into the next phase. And what they’re trying to do is basically check hundreds of boxes to ensure there’s as little risk as possible to anybody coming on campus.

One thing that makes Washington a little different than some of our other schools, as well, is that along with having some of the requirements from the state, we also have requirements from certain state organizations that specialize in different fields. So even though many of our schools in many different states have had to make sure that they’re getting permission from accreditation and from government agencies, there seem to be a few more restrictions here in Washington when it comes to moving from one phase to the next. So, in phase two, for instance, some of those different categories become a little bit more lenient, and as they move into phase three. As of right now, there are no gatherings, for instance, of more than ten people in a classroom at any of our given schools. As we move into phase two, some of our other businesses will start to open up and gatherings will start to move into something a little less restricted. For instance, like right now in our county, because we’re in phase one, you were technically allowed to have people on campus if you’ve been approved and they’ve been properly screened and have received a safety orientation from the site supervisor who submitted the application.

So, it really does get down into the details, which is definitely a good thing. It’s something that I’m thankful for, as someone who has to work to ensure that our campus is safe. The more guidelines that we’re given on how to do that, the better, and the state has been really helpful in at least sharing what those guidelines should look like and basically being a resource of information for us. But ultimately, we’re still turning that dial as of right now and hoping to move into phase two pretty close to the end of June.

Lee: What I think I hear you saying—and I’m sure that your students appreciate all the guidelines that are being taken and the extra precautions that are being taken for their safety as well. And so what I think I hear you saying is that in the beginning of June, the turning of the dial has started, so to speak, and every three weeks we may be moving into another phase—to phase two and then phase three.

But what do you see as being the largest challenge that your schools are facing regarding the pandemic and reopening process? Something that we hear from some of our schools, in particular the healthcare schools, is externships being a big problem for them because they rely on the hospitals to take externs from their school. Can you sort of elaborate on what some of the largest challenges have been during this reopening process?

Zachary: Yeah. I think that definitely touches on it, Lee, that when you attend a career college, oftentimes that does occur with an externship, an internship, fieldwork, clinical rotations, things that require you to be working out there in the field. And so, there’s this balance right now where we know that some of our employer partners, who are looking to hire our students, have positions that are open that need to fill. But they’re also hesitant to provide those experiences to some students until they feel like they’re equipped with the proper staffing and the proper PPE to ensure that everybody who steps into that environment will be able to practice safely. Obviously, in these situations—especially in healthcare, when there’s so much risk for the spread of COVID-19—we want to make sure that stepping into those situations, even as a learner, is as protected as possible. And although our schools do an excellent job of providing the training necessary for them to onboard and practice whatever they need to safely, there’s still kind of this concern that you’re sending someone who hasn’t been certified as a medical professional in that area. And so you’ve seen some of our—we see some of our employers start to loosen that up as things start to get into phase two because we know that they’re going to have—the medical field already has tons and tons of open positions in so many different programs. The gaps of employment in the medical field exist in so many different areas. And as this has gone on, those gaps have gotten bigger. And yet the restrictions on getting students through a pipeline to become graduates and employees of these different organizations, that’s where things can be a little bit more difficult and have slowed down because people don’t feel quite as confident right now in taking on students as learners—knowing that they’re stepping into much more high-risk environments than we would have seen six months ago. So, in terms of those considerations being an obstacle, that’s definitely part of it.

The other part of it is that during all of this, some of our students that would have normally had their schedules all worked out and had their life in order to be able to pursue these clinical environments and externships and opportunities—now some of them have kids at home, some of them are in a tough financial situation as a result of what’s happening here in Washington and in the world. And so, again, it just seems to be this kind of tough situation that we find ourselves in with our students where we want to get them to the end of their goal because part of them coming to our colleges is to make a higher wage, but they’re in a situation right now where life is making that very difficult to do. And for some of them, maybe they even had just a month left and yet this has changed the circumstances in their lives so that the goals that they were pursuing, they definitely have to get a little bit more creative with how to continue to pursue those goals. But that’s why we have excellent resources on our campuses. And we, at the federation, try to provide as much as we can of insight of how one campus or one institution is solving that problem and what we can borrow and lend to another institution who has students facing similar issues.

Lee: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up, as far as your federation and what it is that you are doing to help your member schools. So that kind of leads into my next question, which is, what are some things that you (as in the federation) has done your member schools during this time, either with the reopening process or any sort of legislation assistance regarding the pandemic?

Zachary: Yeah. So, communication’s probably been the most important part of what our actions have done to help the students and the schools, kind of make sure that they have as many resources as possible to answer many different questions. With each one of our schools, there are so many different departments and there are so many moving parts that sometimes having a guidance on those different questions that have been popping up—and knowing that the answers that you’re getting have been vetted and shown to be successful in another area—is all the more important. So communication on a daily basis has been a big part of the federation. And we have some great staff that’s present for ensuring that communication is consistent. The executive director, Maryann, has been such an asset in being basically the glue between all of our member schools, as well as our industry partners.

Our industry partners have been a great support for offering resources for our students. We have industry partners, for instance, Omnilert. Omnilert, basically, is an emergency communication system that you can put into place for your campus in order to communicate updates directly to their phone. A lot of our schools were interested in that kind of technology, because I can basically go on my cell phone and let everybody know of an update from our governor or a new safety alert that I need them to be aware of coming to campus next week. And then we have other partners like CourseKey and a lot of digital resources that give us online environments to host our students. Many of our schools might have had some degree of platforms that they use for remote learning, but definitely not as robust as what was required once we moved into a COVID world that didn’t allow us to attend brick-and-mortar schools anymore.

So a big part of what the federation has done in terms of that communication is make sure that what one school is doing that has shown to be successful can be incorporated and communicated to the rest of our members, so that we’re kind of proactively solving problems as they come up. We also are making sure that we’re staying in communication with federations and other states, because again, we don’t want to operate in a silo and try to reinvent the wheel here in Washington when we know there’s another state federation that we can reach out to who may have encountered this problem a little bit earlier or may have a different set of resources than us.

We’ve also done things like securing vendors for personal protective equipment to make sure all of our campuses that are going to be moving into the next phase have access to PPE, because these days that’s not something you can take for granted with the amount of PPE requested by our hospitals, our schools, and any industry that’s been open. We’ve also offered webinars and trainings online and through Zoom and through other platforms that basically can help people, again, learn from one another, provide them with resources on what’s happening within the state—like you had mentioned, legislation. We have a lobbyist for the federation that consistently kind of has their ear to the ground on any updates relevant to our schools. Sharing those communications as well as the financial support that’s been offered by our state and by our federal government. Knowing how to navigate that process, how to access those funds, and to make sure that our colleges are reprimanded in every one of those conversations. That’s a big part of it is, with all of the funding that has occurred, to help support our schools. We want to make sure that our career schools are viewed as just as important as any other sector. So, it’s just been a big kind of collaboration between our member schools, our industry partners, our executive director, our lobbyist. And, again, any other resources that we can get our hands on that we think will improve our success of returning to campus. And a big part was keeping people in communication and updated while we were off-campus.

Lee: Yeah. Those are all great points, and I think it sounds like you have done so much for your member schools. And we commend you for everything that you’ve done to help your school through these difficult times.

I have one last question for you before I turn things over to Bob. And that is: you deal with all types of schools all across the state—or all across Washington. And do you hear any positive takeaways from this pandemic? Do you believe that schools are going to change the way they deliver education moving forward? Or do you think they’re going go back to the same way that they were doing things before?

Zachary: I would say that it’s a little more surgical in terms of the changes that will occur. I think, within some of the programs being offered with our schools, they may have noticed that certain classes, in particular, were able to transition into online relatively seamlessly compared to other classes. I think, in general, when you look at our sector, there’s so many hands-on skills that are required in order to certify our students in their different careers that many of our schools—that would be a difficult prospect to, for instance, move all of our classes entirely online. But you have seen that certain programs do have classes, in particular, that can offer a little bit more flexibility and convenience for our students, and I know our students have been super excited that they were able to continue to move forward towards their graduation dates, despite the fact that they weren’t able to come to campus. But I also know that many of our students have chosen our schools in particular for the ability to learn kinesthetically, to learn by doing rather than just theoretically learning, what they need to.

I think there’s a balance there where there’s definitely some positives that we’ll be able to take away and our instructors definitely flexed muscles when it becomes an online instructor overnight. Part of it was—it felt like kind of changing your tires while the car was still running. But I think in terms of—if you were to go back to late February or early March and say, “Hey. How well do you think all of your instructors, through your many member schools, will be able to convert into online training compared to on-campus training?” I think they’ve definitely exceeded those expectations, and knowing that we can move students forward in these remote environments does have a lot of conversation in the future for how do we offer more value to our students in terms of flexibility while not compromising, in any way, on the skills and how much competency they’ll need in order to enter their careers.

Bob: Our guest today is Zachary Speron, president of Northwest Career College Federation in the State of Washington.

Zachary, we’ve covered a lot of issues today, covered a lot of ground, is there anything that, as you—in retrospect, that you look back on and say, “I wish I had said that” or, “I’d like to add to this particular program” before we close it off?

Zachary: I don’t think so. I’m just really proud to be part of our federation, knowing what it is that we do and creating jobs here in Washington. The schools that we represent, they all start because there’s a need to employ more professionals in that area—so regardless of the situations that we face, as hard as some of them have been on our students and our staff and faculty, I think we can feel really proud of the way we’ve been able to navigate through the storm. And I’m thankful to have such talented people that have such compassion and excitement for serving our members, knowing that we’re contributing to the workforce here in Washington.

Bob: Oh, well, I think it would be a good idea—before we close, if you could—why don’t you give us some contact information, maybe websites, the phone numbers of anyone—any of our audience is interested in knowing more about the federation and/or PIMA Institute there in Renton, Washington.

Zachary: Yeah, absolutely. So, PIMA has a very easy website: It’s just PMI.edu. You could also find me, Zachary Speron, on LinkedIn and reach out to me with any questions that you might have. The Northwest Career College Federation has a website that basically lists all our different members, our scholarships, our events, resources, a lot of the online and remote training that we’ve done over COVID and well before—and you can reach that website at nwcareercolleges.org. But, yeah, otherwise, I’m happy to be a resource and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of information in those two areas.

Bob: We want to thank today’s guest, Zachary Speron, president of Northwest Career Colleges Federation. Zachary, we really appreciate your leadership during the recent crisis and I’m sure that your members, institutions, appreciate your leadership also.

Zachary: Yeah, I really appreciate what you guys are doing in terms of connecting all of our doff states in the way that we’re trying to resolve these problems. I think it’s important to have voices like yourself that can help bring people together and realize that we’re not alone in what we’re pursuing—and there’s a lot of resources out there if you just reach out.

Bob: Yeah, we appreciate those comments because we also think jumpstarting student awareness on our schools and what’s going on and when they’re going to be open and be available is going to be absolutely critical.

We want to thank today’s audience, also, for taking time out of their very busy schedules to listen to today’s episode of Imagine America Radio.

On behalf of my colleague, Lee Doubleday, and myself, please be safe and we’ll talk to you all again very soon. Thank you and goodbye.

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