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Sarah Watts-RynardThe important role of front-line workers has never been more apparent than over the last several weeks.

They include nurses and personal support workers, paramedics and other first responders, technology professionals and skilled tradespeople, and those working in advanced manufacturing or supplying us with food.

These have been the people with the skills and know-how to keep Canada healthy, safe and functioning when we needed them most.

Front-line workers have more in common than COVID-19 response – a great many are also polytechnic graduates. There’s no better argument for getting students back on these campuses as soon as possible.

Government needs to be thinking about smart investments to make applied education safe and accessible, even as restrictions continue, so the critical talent pipeline isn’t further disrupted.

Polytechnics develop the practical, hands-on skills that have been so necessary throughout the pandemic.

Close relationships with industry have long meant that graduates have both the technical skills and workplace experience required to immediately meet labour market demands. Polytechnics produce talent that’s flexible, highly skilled and can hit the ground running.

While that flexibility is built into the polytechnic model of education, it has been on full display over the last three months.

In early April, the British Columbia Institute of Technology began offering a new course designed to help registered nurses and other health workers care for patients requiring specialty monitoring and critical care. Within weeks, more than 8,500 healthcare workers across Canada and the U.S. had registered and, to date, 5,000 have completed the course.

Meanwhile, at Ontario’s Conestoga College, work to develop a mobile software application to help critical supply chain workers maintain physical distancing has been in development since January. When the pandemic hit, efforts ramped up with new urgency.

In collaboration with Conestoga Cold Storage – a Kitchener-based distribution and warehousing company – two software engineering technology students have developed an app that allows drivers to remain in their trucks and avoid face-to-face contact upon arrival. Testing began in April.

In southwestern Ontario, Fanshawe College has been conducting research into treatments for COVID-19. While we may well have a vaccine in 12 to 24 months, managing the virus is the immediate challenge. In addition to identifying ways to support the body’s immune system, research teams are exploring the manufacture of potential therapeutics to treat the blood clots and inflammation that occur in life-threatening cases.

Post-secondary education focused on developing people with this kind of expertise isn’t just critical in a pandemic, it illustrates the resilience that will be needed in its aftermath.

Delivering on the value proposition of industry-aligned learning and the practical education required for professional accreditation across a number of technical occupations makes waiting for COVID-19 to abate impractical.

Like their post-secondary colleagues, polytechnics moved programs online in the crisis. Yet, given the critical need for graduates with applied skills, getting students back on campus is that much more urgent. To do so, institutions must be supported in their efforts to implement safety and physical distancing measures, as well as put into place infrastructure and technology solutions designed to support skills development in hands-on occupations.

For the immediate and possibly mid-term future, institutions will need to deliver smaller classes subject to new safety measures. Classrooms must be reconfigured and new digital tools – from simulators to virtual reality – introduced across a greater number of labs. The health and safety of students and faculty are paramount, requiring new cleaning protocols and personal protective equipment.

Throughout the course of the COVID-19 crisis, those on the front-line have relied on their ability to use advanced technologies and cutting-edge equipment. Innovative problem-solving skills have matched wits with an unknown and unseen virus.

Yet, Canada’s front-line workforce has proven ready, keeping millions of others healthy, fed and safe, putting themselves at risk in the process.

As government focuses attention on the necessities of preparing for the next time we face an unexpected threat, applied education must be front and centre. Readiness relies on the skills of polytechnic graduates, those ready to rise to the occasion when emergency strikes.

Sarah Watts-Rynard is chief executive officer of Polytechnics Canada.

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