HARLINGEN — Pedro Garza and his fellow automotive students hovered around the engine, the clicking of ratchets and twisting of bolts and vacuous echoes of a mechanic’s shop signaling a return to normalcy.

“We’re taking off the oil pan,” said Pedro, 17, a senior in Julian Montalvo’s automotive class at Harlingen High School.

After 18 months of remote learning significantly hampered education in trades classes, students are returning to mechanics and welding shops, veterinary classes and other coursework where hands-on activities are essential for mastery of skills.

“It feels good,” said Pedro. “I like it. I actually get to work instead of sit behind a computer.”

Over in the welding shop, light flashed and sparks flew as Christopher Rodriguez, 16, laid a bead on a piece of metal he and his classmates cut last week.

“It takes patience, a lot of patience and a lot of practice, because practice makes perfect,” said Christopher, a first-year welding student.

He wanted to take welding last year.

“Well, last year, you know how everything was COVID,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to weld. I wanted to try something new.”

The skill held enough interest for him that he went ahead and took it this year, a year later than he’d planned, but he’s gotten the class.

And he might make it a profession.

“Welders do make a lot of money, so I’m all about the cash,” he said, straight to the point.

His instructor, Rolando Carrizales, was glad to have the students back in class, too.

“Last year during the pandemic, it was hard for me because I’m not a computer person,” Carrizales said. “I’m all hands-on, and I prefer to teach them hands-on so they can learn. Welding is pure practice.”

Montalvo likewise was happy to have his auto students back and he already had big plans for the school year. He gestured toward Pedro and the other students removing the oil pan.

“Right now, we’re tearing down an engine, we’re getting to overhaul it and use it for a competition at SkillsUSA,” he said.

SkillsUSA championships are competitions showcasing career and technical education students across the country.

“We’re going to introduce the engine there,” Montalvo said. “We’re going to clean it up, we’re going to overhaul it and we’re going to recondition it and use it for the competition at SkillsUSA.”

His students were deeply involved in the engine work and what they planned to do with it.

“We’re checking everything out, making sure it looks good and go from there,” said Israel DeLeon, 18, a senior at HHS.

He’s been taking auto mechanics since his sophomore year. He found ways to pursue his passion for mechanics during the pandemic, particularly his passion for race cars.

“I’m working on my 2001 Corvette and my brother’s 2008 G8,” he said. “I’m doing exhausts and cams and intake right now to make them go faster.”

He’s looking forward to studying mechanics after high school to become a professional mechanic.

Trade students and teachers both appeared more concerned with moving forward in their trade than focusing on what they lost during lockdown.

Caden Burns, 17, was getting ready to lay a bead for his welding project. He’s a senior who’s trying to learn an extra skill for practical use.

“Being on the farm, I have really wanted to weld,” he said, further explaining that it’s a valuable skill to have when things break down.

“I’d like to have the ability to do it right instead of it breaking again,” he said.

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