Every auto tech student in the country is asking the same questions, and the answers aren’t forthcoming.

When will collision repair programs at both the high school and college levels ever go back to normal? Will students still be able to graduate on time, or will it delay their careers in collision repair? How will it affect mentoring programs and shop internships? With an enormous need for new technicians, painters and estimators on a national level, will the COVID-19 pandemic create even a larger void?

To get the right answers to these questions, we interviewed several instructors and administrators in California to find out where they stand and what they’re doing to continue their programs during these confusing and uncertain times.

Laura Salas, Contra Costa College (CCC) collision repair faculty and automotive department chair, has been able to successfully transition from classroom to virtual instruction since March 16. Although she’s lost a handful of students since then, things are progressing well, considering the current situation.

“Some kids are flourishing in this new environment, but we did lose a few people during this time because some students lost their motivation for whatever reason,” she said. “One drawback of virtual instruction is the fact that we have no control as compared to being in a real classroom.”

When Salas realized a shutdown was inevitable, she made a definitive move that will keep her students on track to graduate.

“Our curriculum consists of 70% handon instruction, and luckily we completed all of that before we had to shut down,” Salas said. “The majority of our students are still active, taking virtual classes and turning in their assignments.”

Salas has become adept at finding relevant content online to supplement her classes and keep them engaged.

I-CAR has some really helpful stuff online and we often access it for training and to answer the students’ questions,” she said. “PPG has some amazing training videos, and YouTube is also a great resource. We’re always searching for more content online, and much of it is free or low-cost, which is excellent.”

Peter Lock, CCC’s former dean, currently teaches collision repair at the school, and said he hasn’t seen anything like this during his four decades as a teacher and administrator.

“Our biggest fear is our kids will fall behind during this time,” he said. “We know that they’re not going to get everything they would normally. We are getting better at running a classroom online, because it requires a different approach. We always stress class engagement, which is obviously a lot easier in a classroom environment.”

To keep students afloat financially, emergency one-time $500 grants are available, and three of CCC’s students have already received checks, while others are applying.

“Keeping them in the program is our goal, but many of them might encounter issues with their financial aid during this time,” he said. "Some of them had to drop out to pursue essential jobs and others could lose their student housing as well. If this pandemic goes into the summer, their money issues could become more and more problematic and more assistance will undoubtedly be needed.”

Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF) Director of Development Brandon Eckenrode is dealing with a nationwide dilemma, as tech school programs are either stalled or eliminated for the year.

“Late last week we received this note from a South Carolina collision instructor,” Eckenrode said. “‘The South Carolina Department of Education announced this week that the 2020-21 budget is on hold and we would use what was left for the 2019-20 school year for the 2020-21 school year, and those funds have been long gone.

"CREF understands that many businesses are navigating through this current situation for themselves,” he said. “Collision instructors will need the industry’s help now more than ever leading up to their fall school semester, as the situation for South Carolina collision school programs will be very similar for others around the country.

"We will be reaching out to the industry seeking support (monetary, in-kind donations) to help the schools and ensure these programs will have a ‘back to school’ to remember.”

Jason Warren, head of the collision repair program at Dos Palos High School in Los Baños, CA, has been running a one-man show for the past 15 years.

A 1990 graduate of the school, he has more than 60 students in three different classes and works hard to get internships for his best pupils.

Keeping his students in the fold is mission No. 1, Warren said, but many obstacles can get in the way.

“We sent them their homework packets to do their online assignments and most of them came back completed," Warren said. "One of the problems we have here is that it’s a farming community and 75% of our students don’t have a wireless connection, which can be an obstacle to virtual learning.”

Warren has been through a series of ups and downs at Dos Palos, so he’s not dissuaded by anything anymore. A decade ago, he almost lost his department entirely when the school’s industrial arts building was destroyed.

“It burned to the ground, but it wasn’t our fault,” he said. “It happened in our woodworking department, where lacquer and wood ignited. I am telling my students that we’re going to make it through this. But for right now we don’t have any answers for them about what’s going to happen next, and that’s unsettling.”

Program Head Daniel Perejas is proud of his curriculum at Eden Area ROP in Hayward, CA, a program he has worked to improve for the last 10 years. An I-CAR instructor and an industry veteran, Perejas is taking on all challenges and staying positive during the pandemic.

“Part of my job is keeping my students engaged and motivated, because it’s too easy to lose them right now," Perejas said. “We are using Google Classroom, which makes assignments a lot easier, and I have them taking classes from 3M and Collision Academy.

"I can’t ask them to do anything physical, so we’re doing things that we can do in place, like helping them to write their resumes and cover letters.”

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