Learning to teach virtually: Resilience, understanding, and appreciation in a time of chaos

The Corona virus is
affecting all aspects of lives across the globe. From the choices we make, to
our daily routines, no person has been left unaffected. On top of the already
chaotic reality of being academics in one of our nation’s leading allied health
universities we are now working to maintain the educational rigor our teaching demands
to educate future healthcare providers in the midst of this global healthcare
crisis.  As faculty at Rush University
in Chicago, we are actively learning to navigate these extreme times while
continuing to provide high caliber educational experiences to our occupational
therapy students. Couple this with worry for our neighbors’ and family’s
health, and our communities’ potential financial predicament, the emotional toil
is beyond what anyone could have imagined. The chaos of COVID-19 has undeniably
pulled the rug of normalcy from underneath us.

The nation’s colleges and universities have faced seemingly
endless difficult choices – to closing campuses, cancelling unique educational
opportunities, post-pone celebrations, and even cancelling commencement
ceremonies. When Rush University announced its cancellations,
we were heartbroken for our students who – after committing roughly five thousand
hours across three years of study to their chosen fields of study – were in
their final weeks of their educational careers and looking forward to starting
their professional careers after graduating in April. Inevitably, frustration
and sadness have pervaded students’ and faculty’s lives alike; however,  thanks to prompt and clear guidance from
college and university administrators, as well as our quiet
leaders
, students and faculty feel more supported now than ever before.
Celebrations are secondary for the moment. Our goal now is to continue to
effectively teach but also survive so someday careers can begin and blossom and
families can come together to celebrate postponed but non-the-less commemorate
life achievements.

To achieve both of these goals we know we must work together
– something that is not new to the community of occupational therapists across
the world and not new for the Rush University community.

We believe it is critical for us to: 1) Recognize/take stock
of what is working effectively and why and 2) To share our
successes and lessons learned with other universities and occupational therapy
programs and to contribute to a stronger, smarter future/tomorrow.

At Rush, we quickly identified the need to function as a
unit, faculty and students, working as a team to creatively transition every
component of our well-established classroom and experiential learning program to
a completely virtual experience, all while facing new and unexpected challenges
with each new day. No one questioned the need for this transition, and faculty
are pulling together to ensure the most optional learning possible for our
students.

Faculty has rapidly learned how to transfer lectures to online
format and are learning to use unfamiliar virtual meeting and education platforms
such as Zoom, Go-to-Meetings, Examity, etc. We encourage students to provide us
with feedback, and they are doing so quickly and constructively; this
student-faculty interaction is mutually beneficial and has resulted in a
considerably efficient and effective transition from an all in-person to fully
online educational program. Additionally, faculty is addressing the trials of
how to deliver laboratory class sessions remotely. These numerous and
significant changes are happening all while ensuring the program is meeting
university and specialty accreditation
standards
.  Our faculty is working
day and night to complete this transition, with the common goal to provide our
students with the best learning experience possible. 

One of the greatest challenges we face in this new, virtual
environment, is addressing the required clinical experiences associated with our
curricula. Unique to clinical degree programs such as occupational therapy,
nursing, and medicine, are the clinical rotations required to demonstrate a student’s
entry-level practice competence.  At this
time of year, many students are in the last weeks of their practical or doctoral
experiences, in which they engage in advanced skill development, as well as
increasing their leadership and advocacy skills.  Accrediting bodies have strict guidelines regarding
the timeframe for these clinical rotations. Out of abundance of concern for our
students and the patients they serve, Rush University has suspended all
clinical experiences in order to keep patients, staff and students as safe and
health as possible.  The entire academic
body of our institution is currently working around the clock to develop alternative
experiences that would allow students to continue to progress in their respective
programs and thus graduate on time. We have made it a priority to avoid
delaying a new wave of healthcare providers in the fight against COVID-19 and
the inevitable growing spread of other invisible enemies.

Our fieldwork and capstone coordinators are in communication
with site mentors where students were currently working to determine if there
are options for project completion. The response has been overwhelming –
clinical sites are collaborating with us and our students, offering exciting
and flexible opportunities to continue student experiences in creative ways, such
as through virtual patient visits, the development of patient and staff
educational materials, or translating in-person care to easy-to-follow
self-care manuals. The cooperation and support from these sites are a crucial part
of what is working well within our program, as they go above and beyond what is
expected of them. For this, Rush and our department is eternally grateful.

What else is getting us through this period of constant
change? Faculty is maintaining daily contact and together exploring ways to
address our emotional needs. We accomplish this through formal meetings using
Zoom to sharing impromptu jokes over group texts. Each of us is also reaching
out to students on a regular basis. We keep them posted on what is happening at
Rush and within the program, we offer assurance that we are working hard for
them to keep them on track for graduation, and importantly, we are reaching out
because we care. We check-in on them to ask how they are doing in this
time of significant uncertainty and fear. However, even this can be a challenge
at times, as things are constantly changing and oftentimes the “Send” button on
the email has just been hit and the information in that email is already outdated. 

Throughout this time of change, the response from the
students is unprecedented.  With each new
email, even when it is “bad news,” we receive numerous emails expressing
gratitude.  The students appreciate the
faculty’s transparency and effort they put forth.  One student even wrote, “I have never felt so
taken care of by faculty.”  Our hearts
hurt for these students, knowing that their educational experience has been
tremendously disrupted. But our hearts soar, seeing the resilience,
understanding, and appreciation they are expressing during this difficult time.

A final factor we attribute to weathering this storm is
individual efforts in creatively finding ways to reach out and help the
communities with which we have long standing service relationships. Serving the
communities our institutions resides within is a commitment woven throughout Rush
University’s mission and vision. Attending to these communities is as important
to us as attending to our families and our students. While these experiences
are focused on helping others they are also powerful forms of self-care. 

Examples of some of our outreach activities include attending
to people’s spiritual needs through virtual worship opportunities and working
with other universities to help people with disabilities and the older adult
population. We have also shared and advocated for legislation that will help
families and individuals who are experiencing increased hardship, as well as
legislation that can expand the possibilities of providing services such as telehealth
to patients in self-isolation.

As we reflect on this time we are grateful to work with such
phenomenal faculty and students across our institution.  The leadership within the college and the
university are working hard to ensure that the needs and well-being of the
students, faculty, and all staff are being met. 
We are learning how to best continue teaching our students, and in the
process, we are learning the critical importance of social connectedness in the
wake of social distancing. We are thankful for the boldness of the health care
workers and scientists, not only at Rush, but around the world.

Laura
VanPuymbrouck, PhD, OTR/L, is an Assistant Professor in the College of Health
Sciences at
Rush University in the Department of Occupational Therapy. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

Co-author:
Linda Olson, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA is the Chairperson of the Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Health Sciences, Rush University, Chicago. 

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