Learning From COVID

Learning From COVID

Students have gotten experience living and learning during the pandemic. One year into this era, it’s clear that higher ed institutions should not be returning to the old normal, but rather learning from this time and evolving.

How a scholarly meeting became a superspreader event

They came. They saw. They got COVID-19.

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Tweet from Cliff Lampe dated May that says, "Hi #chi2022 people - lots of reports of positive COVID tests coming out of the conference. Hope it’s not a broad problem, but keep testing, check for symptoms, and be well."

Ithaka S+R announces data, group on academic conferences

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Ithaka S+R releases study on the annual conference in the pandemic era and announces new cohort to plan for meetings of the future.

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Study shows faculty diversity took a hit in time of crisis

New study looks back to find that faculty diversity took a hit in terms of tenure-track hires during and after the Great Recession. Study also looks ahead to warn that the same thing could happen during and after COVID-19.

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Unions at Point Park and City College San Francisco fight for ways to save faculty jobs

Faculty unions at Point Park University and City College of San Francisco have found different means to the same end: preserving full-time faculty jobs threatened during COVID-19.

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Student experiences during COVID and campus reopening concerns

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67% of students back on campus in some capacity had not expected in-person events to be canceled this year.

Students reflect on what has worked, what has not and what they want from their colleges post-COVID. (Hint: Keep that lecture recording button handy and virtual support options available.)

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Helping students develop mental immunity to COVID (opinion)

“I walk around with a constant heaviness. The headaches, sleepiness, anxiety … I don’t know what to do about them or if they will go away.”

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently issued a new report to highlight the need to address a mental health crisis among the nation’s youth, adolescents and young adults. Murthy’s advisory is an urgent call for a coordinated and holistic response to this crisis. The emotional and mental health of college students across the country—and the world—is at a crisis level, and this situation is hurting students’ ability to self-regulate, learn and thrive. Consider the previous undergraduate student’s comment and the following one, made in a focus group about how colleges can better help students cope with the anxiety of the current moment:

“Prior to the pandemic, I was a good student in the sense that I got all my work done on time and was super passionate about learning. Then I went home [when the pandemic hit] and tried to continue my work. It was horrible … like all the missing assignments and lack of motivation and staring blankly at my work. I was trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Did I lose my cognitive function? So I was like, maybe this is the real me, maybe I’m actually really unmotivated and lazy and maybe I was never a good student. I felt lonely and embarrassed and scared.”

Such sentiments reflect how many students have felt over the past 21 months. Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, colleges and universities across the nation recognized this mental health crisis and began to offer trauma-informed teaching and learning webinars for their faculty in order to help them support their students’ well-being and learning. Given the global statistics on the prevalence of toxic stress in college students before the pandemic, those workshops were long overdue.

Yet even today, if such workshops are offered at all in higher education, they are typically one-off, providing a piecemeal approach to addressing what is a burgeoning systemic issue. While those efforts are a move in the right direction, they are merely reactive. Moreover, remedies are limited by virtue of the amount of information that can be shared with faculty who are then asked to work with students, and they rely upon faculty members who are themselves often overwhelmed and may be experiencing burnout.

Given the limits of current interventions, how can we educate students about toxic stress and the lasting effects of the pandemic and ameliorate how these experiences will impact learning? How can higher education transform this anguished moment in order to have a future that is kinder, more humane and more equitable—one that empowers all students to learn and thrive?

In this essay, we present a set of five recommendations for departments and institutions, each with suggestions for enacting them.

1. Give students a basic education about neurophysiology. First, higher education must help students understand how learning works and why emotions are integral to their learning. Institutions currently have made few, if any, organized or systematic efforts to educate students about how their own physiology impacts their learning and success. Most first-year student orientations cover academic support, study skills, time management, important deadlines and academic logistics. But basic information about physiology, the neurobiology of learning and emotional and mental health is, at best, given cursory attention if covered at all.

Thus, we recommend that during student orientations, institutions hold a session specifically to impart upon students the following key ideas. First, learning is complex and multifaceted yet still possible for all students. Second, stress, which impacts emotions, is an undeniable fact of life, so rather than masking our emotions—which is what students are often taught or expected to do—students should be aware of them and learn to regulate them. Third, learning about and cultivating self-compassion enhances the learning experience even when one fails. Fourth, students must maintain their mental health with equal or even more commitment as they do their physical health. We also suggest:

  • Invite students to offer brief testimonies to highlight how they negotiate or cope with stress. When students hear from each other the different ways they are recognizing and dealing with stress, they will learn from it. An institution could send weekly video messages from various students describing how they have leveraged the power of emotions to learn or how listening to their body has helped them manage their stress.
  • Hold regular public symposia where students’ family and friends are invited to learn about the complexity of learning and how toxic stress can impact learning. Many students may experience stress or pressure from home, so inviting parents or other family members to such a discussion may give them more perspective on what students are going through.
  • Work with the student government to organize town hall meetings to learn from students and see that their struggles are not one-size-fits-all. Students come from different backgrounds, and although this is a time of collective turmoil and pains, they don’t all experience them the same way. Many things beyond biological reactions can impact students’ learning, including social, cultural, psychological and environmental factors. Hearing directly from students will not only make them feel that their voice matters but also help the college community recognize how many factors can affect a student’s well-being.
  • Reach out to the offices of Veterans’ Student Services and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and other offices that work closely with students to learn more about the students they serve and their struggles and how you might be able to help them.

2. Educate students about how to regulate their emotions and reduce their stress. Talking about reducing or managing one’s responses to stress and actually doing so are two different things. How can we foster a culture that encourages students to understand and deal effectively with their emotions? We suggest:

  • Offer a college colloquium on the science of emotions and why emotions matter to a person’s health.
  • Allocate a space in the library or student union where students can co-create a mosaic of stories titled, “In memory of,” expressing what they lost over the past two years, especially in relation to the pandemic. Students are mourning and don’t necessarily know how to grieve.
  • Hold weekly art/music/massage/pet therapy programs around the campus in easily accessible places. Such opportunities will enable students between classes to get a quick stretch, to pet a cat or to walk up to a mobile art studio and participate in a community art project. These opportunities can be particularly helpful during tough weeks like finals or other stressful exam periods.
  • Offer online meditation sessions for students. Such sessions can be daily, brief and student-led efforts to create a culture of care and teach students how to regulate their emotions through various techniques. Such remote opportunities can be crucial, because isolation may not allow students to meet in person. Similarly, an online meditation community could also help if someone is not able to physically be at a specific place. Sometimes a person might just need tools to help collect their thoughts and find balance again.

3. Provide culturally relevant support. Mental health support should be tailored and recognize communal, cultural and global contexts. For example, the pandemic disproportionately affected students from historically marginalized backgrounds. Higher education must provide support that honors different students’ backgrounds and complex histories. We suggest:

  • Reassure students from historically excluded backgrounds that you understand that the stress impacting them may be disproportionate, including the added stress from generational and intergenerational factors. Examine how students of color are experiencing the pressures of being at predominantly white institutions. To truly understand students who come from historically excluded backgrounds, you have to talk with them individually or in small groups. Some may not feel ready to engage in large conversations unless you first assure them that you will address the issues that pertain to them and their communities.
  • Make certain that the counselors at your institution understand the distinct needs of students of color and are sufficiently trained about intergenerational trauma as well as cultural humility. It is also important to have diverse counseling services so that students of all backgrounds have someone they can identify with.
  • Ensure that the counseling services offer an asset-based approach to mental health that recognizes that different groups of people experience different cultural and other stressors. People often find it difficult to identify sources of stress related to their cultural identity because they have become so ingrained in their daily lives.
  • Include traditionally excluded students in the conversation about and planning for a post-pandemic institution. It’s important to understand that the old normal wasn’t working for everyone and that the vision for a new normal should be better and more equitable.

4. Work tirelessly to destigmatize conversations about mental health. Rather than throwing around words like “resilience” and assuming that everyone knows what that is, or that students can just “switch on” their “grit” and move forward in the face of ongoing adversities, help them develop those characteristics. Don’t treat students as if something is wrong with them. Students, like many people, are struggling to cope with ongoing uncertainty, traumas, divisiveness, illness and workload. “We want to endure and we want to be resilient,” one student told us. And they need the help of an entire community. But despite all the conversations about mental health, stigma still surrounds it. How can schools demystify mental health support? We suggest:

  • Provide weekly mobile talk “therapy” stations where students can do walk-ins and talk for 10 minutes. Place those stations around the campus so they are easily accessible. For example, a table can have a therapist with a sign: “Are you feeling overwhelmed? You’re not alone. Got five minutes? I can help,” or something similar. Sometimes students don’t want to go through the process of making appointments and waiting to be seen; they often just want to vent to an adult who is impartial. (That said, this approach may not reach those who feel especially vulnerable in seeking help.)
  • Ensure that you have enough support on the campus, and make sure students are aware of that support. This work cannot be sustainable if staff are spread too thin. How many therapists do you have? How long is the waiting period before a student can see one? Are the therapists themselves overwhelmed? What are you doing to help the helpers? Don’t wait for a crisis to happen to intervene.
  • Hold yearlong personalized training sessions with the staff and faculty about how to recognize mental distress in students and how to help connect them to the right contextual, culturally attuned help. Empower them to advocate for changes in policies, such as grading on a curve or easing tuition payment deadlines, when those policies challenge students’ mental health.
  • Offer students the chance to do an independent study, their honors thesis or senior capstone as a service project where they can choose to become mental health and well-being ambassadors. Perhaps they can visit various classes and talk about coping with stress, strategies for well-being and available support for students’ mental health.
  • Help faculty understand that they, too, need to prioritize student well-being in order to help them learn. Encourage faculty to check in with their students regularly about how they are doing and the stress they are experiencing.

5. Prepare for the long-term effects of the pandemic. These effects include the impact of two years of disrupted learning, the post-traumatic stress many students are experiencing, as well as the effects of “long COVID.” Institutions should help students understand that what they are experiencing—the languishing burnout, the lack of motivation, the mental fogginess—could be due to the lingering effects of the pandemic and not because they are academically incapable. We suggest:

  • Work with your health experts to ensure that the campus community understands the phenomenon of long COVID. Knowing one’s body and advocating for its health is especially important in light of the rising cases, especially among young people, of long COVID and its impact on the nervous system.
  • Appreciate that many students’ struggle is more than needing to manage their time or develop the right study skills. Some students might be experiencing mental fogginess and other issues due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic or PTSD brought on by the pandemic. It doesn’t help to tell students to “manage their time better” when neurophysiological mechanisms might be impacting their ability to focus.
  • Investigate what percentage of your students had COVID and are experiencing symptoms of long COVID, especially those related to mental fogginess, as they will undoubtedly impact how students show up, engage and learn.
  • Create pamphlets highlighting long COVID symptoms to look for. Share those pamphlets with the campus community. Include information about the people who are at a higher risk of long COVID.
  • Investigate what local community support is available for long COVID and send an email to everyone on the campus to share those resources. Also invite members of your campus community to post additional resources on a public message board.

This list is not exhaustive. But we hope these types of efforts will help destigmatize mental struggles and make students more comfortable with seeking effective, sustainable ways to cope. Surgeon General Murthy beckons us to respond swiftly, reminding us that “our obligation to act is not just medical—it’s moral.” We dream of a higher education that commits to truly developing what the Dalai Lama calls “mental immunity,” helping students become self-regulated and more effective learners who can grow and tackle wicked local and global problems.

Our call extends beyond the current moment; it is about the opportunity the pandemic presents for higher education to transform its approach to education. We ask institutions to pause and prioritize the whole student, their intellectual and emotional development, because learning cannot take place unless students are supported in both dynamics. Accordingly, we ask institutions to re-examine their vision of meaningful learning and student success, so they work to empower students not only with knowledge about the world but also through knowledge about themselves and how they can individually and collectively cope with the uncertainties of the present and the future. Only then will higher education truly empower all students to dare to hope, to learn and to thrive.

Lovisa Werner, Kaaren Liston, Skylar Magee, Eilis Reardon, Alyss Humphrey and Steven Senese are senior students at Connecticut College who are investigating the prevalence and impact of long COVID on student learning and emotional well-being. Mays Imad (@lrningsanctuary) is the students’ project adviser, who regularly publishes about teaching, learning and higher education. We would like to thank the students in First-Year Seminar 1032, An Integrative Approach to Human Disease, for reading and commenting on a draft of these recommendations.

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COVID has spurred four positive changes on campuses (opinion)

The COVID-19 pandemic turned higher education upside down, sending millions of students and faculty members online amid unprecedented academic, personal and financial crises. It was an immense challenge, and it’s tempting to focus on the difficulties and disappointments of the last 19 months. But the truth is that higher education’s response to the pandemic has planted the seeds for long-lasting positive change on college campuses. COVID-19 sent our educators back to class, forcing them to learn new ways to keep their students enrolled, engaged and on track.

Now, we must take the hard lessons of the last year and a half and ensure we continue to innovate in the months and years to come. Though originally driven by necessity, the new tools and systems we’ve developed should remain as mainstays of our campuses even after we emerge from the grips of the pandemic. Here are four ways colleges changed for the better during the pandemic.

No. 1: Expanded virtual services. COVID-19’s abrupt interruption of physical connection hit the fast-forward button on our reliance on virtual connections. While online learning was already evolving before the pandemic, the sudden closures of campuses across the country accelerated those changes in ways many people may have previously deemed improbable. Hundreds of colleges moved from face-to-face to virtual learning basically overnight.

But at a number of institutions, it wasn’t just our classes that became virtual. At Rockland Community College, for example, we also began offering mental health telecounseling, virtual testing centers and online academic and career counseling sessions. Students flocked to those digital services, reminding us of the importance of accessibility even beyond the difficulties of the pandemic.

Many students, especially those at community colleges, have been busy working or raising children -- or both -- while enrolled. Expanding our virtual services allowed more students to access support and resources wherever they are, and such changes are here to stay.

No. 2: A shifting mind-set. Along with our technological shift came a mind-set shift. Our faculty members were quickly trained to teach online, and staff members worked to determine how to support students in an all-virtual environment. The result was a greater understanding of how we can better serve our students. We are forever changed.

We have to be. Students will now come to expect such kinds of easily accessible, round-the-clock services. They will demand real-time responsiveness and more accommodation. And they will seek out institutions that express care and concern for them as students and individuals with many varying needs.

The genie is out of the bottle. Student expectations will ultimately play a more significant role, and those expectations should inform how the learning elements we redesigned in response to COVID-19 become normalized in our colleges and universities. We must commit to listening more to our students and to better meeting them where they are.

No. 3: Improved career pathways. Every crisis creates opportunity, and we must now design programs that will better prepare students to meet the emerging needs and possibilities of an ever-changing job market.

Community colleges -- the entry point to higher education for so many people -- have long served as early leaders in offering shorter-term credentials, helping students seeking to become first responders or enter the expanding fields of allied health, technology and telecommunications. We have pioneered career skills programs focused on meeting the needs not only of those wishing to upgrade their competencies but also of local and regional businesses looking to fill empty positions. After the pandemic’s devastating impact on our workforce, we are doubling down on those offerings.

Before the pandemic, ​our college’s Career Skills Academy had a placement rate of 83 percent, with students immediately starting jobs at salaries between $50,000 and $60,000 after a few weeks of coursework and on-the-job training with our industry partners. Now we are convening with employers in various industries to increase further workforce pipeline development opportunities. Both students and the industries in which they hope to work must have confidence in our ability to produce talent fully prepared for rapidly changing fields.

No. 4: A renewed focus on equity. With its disparate impact on communities of color, the pandemic highlighted the vast inequities that persist in this country and our higher education systems. But the challenges of COVID-19 have also left our nation with an opportunity to build a fairer and more connected community. Colleges and universities are distinctly positioned to pursue that opportunity.

At our institution, we have developed a culture of inquiry in our quest for inclusive excellence. We have permitted ourselves to ask the difficult questions about the intentional and unintentional consequences of our recruitment and onboarding processes for students, faculty and staff; our student career and academic advising approaches; and our faculty and staff professional development programs and advancement opportunities.

In addition, we continue to challenge the various systems within the institution that potentially serve as barriers to growth, success and equitable outcomes for our faculty, staff and students. We must make equity and inclusion a priority. Colleges and universities can drive critical discussions that encourage inquiry into systemic structures -- asking if they are all connected equally, effectively and intentionally so we can grow together.

Higher education institutions understand how vital it is to think of connectivity not only as a technological goal but as a societal one, connecting on all levels with educators, staff, students and the greater community. We can -- and must -- model how to strengthen our nation in these crucial ways as we look forward with hope toward the promise of a healthier world.

Now is not the time to retreat to the old, pre-pandemic habits. It is time to codify and sustain the positive changes we have made -- and take to heart the lessons we have absorbed over the last 19 months. It is time to keep innovating. And it is time to keep learning.

Michael A. Baston is president of Rockland Community College and a designer in residence at Education Design Lab.

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Considering conscientious objections to vaccine mandates (opinion)

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granting full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, more colleges and universities are enacting vaccine mandates for their campus communities. While requiring vaccines of students and faculty members will no doubt help to stem the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant across campuses, I question if such immutable mandates are the best approach.

For the record: I believe in the efficacy and safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. They are powerful tools in our toolbox to fight this deadly pandemic. Earlier this year, my wife, Jeanne, and I rolled up our sleeves to be vaccinated to help protect ourselves and others and to serve as examples for our campus community.

However, when it comes to strict vaccine mandates, colleges and universities are clearly at odds with the advice of leading psychologists, who say that presenting absolutes is the worst way to convince the vaccine hesitant to take the jab. In fact, following the science demands that we take the opposite approach: to move minds, you have to listen with empathy and respect and, if appropriate, gently counter hesitation and fears with facts.

A deeper problem for higher education institutions is that vaccine mandates contradict our mission to cultivate critical thinking and decision-making skills in our nation’s next generation of leaders. We exist as incubators of thoughtful research and reasoned debate. After working in higher education for many years, I’m still idealistic enough to believe that acknowledging dissent with respect and fostering discussion are the most effective ways to create positive change.

During my tenure in the U.S. Army, I taught leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point and at Vanderbilt University. Military leadership is greatly misunderstood in the civilian world. When you’re setting policy, the commander doesn’t just march in and dictate direction. Most high-level decision making is participative. Experts collaborate on how best to meet objectives. If there’s no template, you go out and research the best ways to accomplish the goal. The ensuing discussions, and even disagreements, lead to stronger decisions and build the leadership team. When the Pentagon announced its vaccine mandate in August, a spokesperson noted that service members who refuse the vaccine would have the opportunity to sit with a physician and their military leadership to discuss their reasons for their decision and how it might ultimately impact them, their fellow soldiers, their units and the military.

The military’s approach highlights the difference between management and leadership: managers influence things, like budgets, payroll, calendars and organizational charts. Leaders influence people. In the case of vaccine mandates, most colleges and universities are exercising management: they tell students and employees to get a vaccine or don’t come to college. But as institutions of higher learning, we should be fostering leadership by motivating our students to research their options through credible sources, engage in thoughtful debate and recognize the consequences of their decisions.

At Centenary University in New Jersey, where I serve as president, we’ve taken a different approach, perhaps influenced by my military experience when it comes to vaccine mandates. We announced our policy this summer, requiring that students, faculty members and employees be vaccinated. Like most institutions, we are providing for religious and medical exemptions. But we’ve taken the additional step of offering a third category, called conscientious objection.

All of the conscientious objectors, including students, faculty and other employees, whose vaccine concerns don’t fit neatly into the other two categories meet personally with me to discuss why they’re still hesitant. The latter category is by no means an easy out. To receive an exemption -- signed by me -- they must present a fact-based argument detailing why they haven’t been vaccinated.

The confidential discussions I’ve had with Centenary students in this category have been illuminating. Their reasons for refusing to vaccinate are varied -- misinformation, fear, pressure from family and time constraints all play a role. We also discuss the consequences of their decision, including required safety protocols like masking and weekly testing for the unvaccinated, as well as the potential for them to spread COVID-19 to friends and loved ones.

While it’s time-consuming for me, these young adults are participating in a valuable learning experience. They leave my office with mixed results. Some pledge to be vaccinated right away. Others have promised to get the vaccine upon FDA approval, and I personally began to reach out to that group as soon as the vaccine was approved. While I’ve granted relatively few exemptions, everyone receives the courtesy of a respectful discussion with a person in authority who cares enough to listen. They leave my office feeling heard, and that induces many to get a vaccine.

With the Delta variant wreaking havoc throughout the country over the past months, colleges and universities have faced a delicate balance this fall. We must protect our campus communities as effectively as possible, and achieving high levels of vaccination is vital to achieve that goal. At the same time, we owe it to our students to provide them with the tools to develop into true leaders who can intelligently weigh the consequences of their decisions.

Bruce Murphy is president of Centenary University. A veteran, he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel after a 23-year U.S. Army infantry career and then went on to serve eight and half years as the Air University’s chief academic officer, a U.S. Air Force senior civilian executive position.

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An academic administrator shares lessons on managing change during COVID (opinion)

Frances Altvater shares what she’s learned as an academic administrator and how it has uncovered new skills of empathy, adaptability and resilience.

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Classroom strategies to keep after the pandemic ends (opinion)

Teaching Today

Jessie B. Ramey shares four specific strategies she’s found quite successful and plans to continue this coming fall when classes are face-to-face.

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