Coaldale high school students finish 1st year of Fire Academy through online learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Alberta schools to adapt how they offer programming after temporarily closing back in March — with many turning online.

For subjects such as math, social, and English, this task might seem fairly straightforward. However, for more hands-on learning — transitioning online may be harder, but not impossible.

Kate Andrews High School in Coaldale, Alta. offers a Fire Academy course in conjunction with Coaldale and District Emergency Services. The class, which was launched in September 2019, had 12 students take part in both in-classroom, online, and hands-on learning.

According to a release from the Palliser Regional School Division, the Fire Academy class was initially set to take place at the Coaldale Fire Hall. However, due to renovations the class was moved to the Kate Andrews.

But once COVID-19 halted all in-person classes, they had to figure out a way to continue the program.

“I think it was really important for the students to finish it because they were so heavily invested in it,” said Jason Kuepery, Palliser’s director in charge of off-campus programming.

“The material was engaging, exciting, they were leaning something really new, and they were learning something they were interested in. To not finish that would have been a real disservice to students.”

The Kate Andrews Fire Academy is a two-year program, with one year providing medical training, and the next year fire training.

In the first year of the course, students learn first aid, including CPR and heart and stroke response.

Then, they start training to receive a Medical First Responders certificate from NAIT.

“We’re doing that entire college-level program with these kids at the high school,”  Coaldale Fire Chief Kevin McKeown said.

McKeown, who has been with the Coaldale Fire Department for 13 years, helped develop and run the program as a way to get high school students interested in a career in emergency services.

He says the idea is to have students begin the program in Grade 11, and finish at the end of their Grade 12 year, ready to head into whatever career they choose.

“I think it’s pretty unique,” he said. “I know some departments do something similar, but I’m not sure how many people do it to this extent.”

Fortunately, by the time the pandemic restrictions were put into place, McKeown said the class had already finished most of its hands-on lessons, and instructors were able to conduct the rest of the material and final exam online. 

He says 11 out of 12 students have officially finished their first year in the program, and even if classroom restrictions continue into September, the program will stay afloat.

“We can do a lot over the computer,” said McKeown, adding the response to the program has been very positive. “Whatever we can do to keep this program going forward, then we’ll do it.”

He says the students involved are incredibly dedicated, using time outside of regular classes to get their materials done. Under non-pandemic circumstances, the course runs for four hours on Friday afternoons, when McKeown says most students have already gone home for the weekend.

Even if the students don’t go into careers in emergency medicine, McKeown says the tools will be invaluable in whatever they choose to pursue.

“These are life-saving skills,” said McKeown. “You never know when you’re going to see someone collapse in front of you, or maybe someone is at home and goes into medical distress.

“They will always have this knowledge that will stay with them and maybe they’ll save a life some day.”

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