New Haven area professors on COVID-related changes, 3 years later

NEW HAVEN — From the outside, college campuses likely look the same as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic: no masks or COVID testing stations. But from within, the virus is having a significant and long-lasting impact on the classroom.

About three years ago, students were sent on spring break, which kept them away longer than usual as most colleges closed and switched their classes to virtual in response to the spreading virus.

By the time they were able to physically return in the fall of 2020, protocols were in place with vaccine, testing, masking, social distancing, classroom capacity and quarantine. Now these have been rescinded.

But what remains, say the professors, are better communication tools, more sympathy for policy-making, and a deeper understanding of the value of socialization. While these positive changes won’t solve everything, some faculty members believe they will help create an environment where loneliness and anxiety among students caused by pandemics can be better addressed.

“I find they’re a bit withdrawn in the classroom,” said Karl Minges, assistant professor and chair of population health and leadership at the University of New Haven.

Although Minges doesn’t see a noticeable drop in attendance, he said there is a lot of anxiety and depression, and students feel lonely.

Rondalyn Whitney, professor and chair of occupational therapy at Quinnipiac University, supported the idea. She said students go to college without the invisible skills and don’t know how to relate or navigate a social environment.

“It was taken from them at a formative stage in their development,” Whitney said.

According to a study by the American College Health Association, about 77 percent of college students reported having moderate to severe mental distress in 2021. In addition, data shows that about 89 percent of students experiencing academic challenges said they were affecting their mental health.

For educators to spot these trends, Whitney says they need to be “very careful” not to use a punishment method to encourage participation or engagement.

In the past, she said, learning was about achieving specific objective outcomes, with community engagement being a secondary goal. Now, she said, it’s about balancing both at the same time. “Students cannot learn content without community involvement,” Whitney said. “It’s a fundamental change. I think it’s better, but it’s not easy.”

“Kindness at Every Crossroads” in Politics, Curriculum Design

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Given the psychological and emotional concerns, Whitney said professors need to change their class policies. For example, a student may ask for an extension because their computer is not working, or a student may miss several classes due to family issues.

“To be fair, we chose to choose kindness at every crossroads,” Whitney said. “We thought, ‘What would be the kindest decision for this student and what would really help the student when in doubt?’ because there was no way we could have known what their circumstances were.”

She said students are getting plenty of breaks from it while teachers can work with them on an “unprecedented pandemic journey.”

For Minges, he said the pandemic has brought about a student-centric focus in mentoring, counseling and teaching, as professors have had to adapt their teaching style to make it more dynamic to meet students where they are.

As department head, Minges said he’s noticed that professors have become more forgiving when it comes to students’ needs for absenteeism or late assignments.

“I think I’ve learned that students are much more resilient than we give them credit for and what they want to get out of their education, even with the limitations they face in relation to COVID,” said Minges.

To avoid worsening students’ mental health, Minges said he’s doing more group projects and group breakout rooms for online classes to build social cohesion, which he says is disrupted.

Whitney said the new approach has been “transformative” for her, but has also put many in an awkward position.

“We kind of knew everything we studied. We have a Ph.D. in that stuff and all of a sudden we didn’t know anything,” Whitney said. “We really understood that the ways of the past were no longer the right ones and we weren’t given new ways, we had to find them.”

For those who welcomed the change, Whitney said it made them better people, family members and “certainly better teachers.”

Regarding the curriculum overhaul, Whitney said he needs to prepare students for uncertainty in the future, which means professors need to acknowledge the unknown.

“Any student who graduates needs to not only know the content, but also know how to create anything that will be needed in the future,” she said. “It’s a real challenge, and the only way to do that is if we’re willing not to know.”

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Appreciation for social commitment

For educators in communication-focused classes, they said the isolation aspect of the pandemic is reminding them of the importance of face-to-face interaction.

Jodie Gil, associate professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, said it has been a challenge for her students to get used to speaking to people in person or calling people on the phone rather than Zoom or email meetings to perform.

“It’s really important to get personal again, because we do a lot of personal things, and what we do is interpersonal,” Gil said of her journalism class. “A lot of students have had maybe two years where that wasn’t the case, so part of that helps them transition back to that expectation.”

She remembered the fall semester of 2021 when things were different. She said she found it “very challenging” because she loved it when students worked together in face-to-face groups, but wasn’t happy with it.

Similarly, Ben Bogardus, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac, said that sometimes students don’t know what a full college experience looks like, so they’re a little harder to engage with.

“Behind the screen, they can easily be anonymized just by turning off their cameras,” he said. “When they’re actually in a class, sometimes they’re a little hostile or hesitant, but that’s so much better; I can actually engage these students.”

As someone who teaches broadcasting, Bogardus said students used to have to be distanced from each other with a mask – in addition to a room capacity limit.

He said that now there is no barrier and he can see facial expressions, which has made teaching and engagement easier.

Both journalism professors said one of the biggest things they learned from the pandemic was the appreciation of a personal connection with students – “a realization that what we took for granted before COVID is something that can easily be taken away.” can and could easily be taken away again,” as Bogardus put it.

Gil said that being physically with a group of people can create such a mood difference.

“Your skills don’t change, but sometimes your motivation changes,” she said.

Zoom takeover

If there is an upside to the pandemic, professors seem to agree that this is the better way to communicate and use technology. The pandemic has forced students and teachers alike to transition to virtual and hybrid classes.

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Gil said everyone can now conveniently use video conferencing and document sharing systems online. Previously, she said, this software was only used by tech-savvy people.

“I like that it gives it a lot more flexibility,” Gil said. “I can meet students who have a lot of work schedule issues when maybe they can’t come during office hours, but we can check in at night via Zoom. I don’t have to go back to campus to see them.”

Bogardus said he cares much more about technology integration when creating assignments — for example, using more Blackboard, PDFs to read materials, and Zoom to invite guest speakers.

“Everyone knows how to use it,” he said. “We don’t have the kind of hurdles of filing papers and keeping track of physical copies of things.”

It has also made the consultation easier for Bogardus, because he can now attend appointments around the clock or at the weekend from home.

Gil said that before COVID-19, most universities had made a push to offer more online courses and integrate more technology. The pandemic has accelerated that transition, she said. It also forced teachers and many workplaces to decide whether each scenario must be done in person or can be done virtually.

“I think these questions are still being sought, debated, and debated, and maybe we’ll see some more changes over the next few years,” Gil said. “It was nice to force myself to reconsider things that I assumed had to be a certain way.”

COVID as a “catalyst”

Professor of occupational therapy at Quinnipiac Whitney said while she doesn’t think the pandemic will ever go away, it has changed the world — particularly education — in “profound ways, forever.”

She said COVID-19 is a powerful catalyst for “where we probably should have gone anyway,” and it’s up to educators to adapt and carefully develop best practices to support student success.

“It’s something we sit in education with every day and are very thoughtful,” Whitney said. “We’re going to graduate with antifragile degrees, and I’m looking forward to that.”

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