For faculty, a semester of challenge, creativity and resilience

A fall term defined by COVID-19 has been anything but normal, as professors work to modify curriculum and meet the needs of students — and double check the WiFi connection.

a symphony conductor, speaks to his musicians during a rehearsal. everyone is wearing a mask
Terry Austin during a rehearsal of VCU's symphonic wind ensemble. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Inside the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, the Virginia Commonwealth University symphonic wind ensemble is rehearsing for its next performance … sort of.

With public health protocols in place emphasizing physical distance, only about half the ensemble (which typically consists of 52 to 54 people seated in a tight semicircle) can fit on the stage at one time. The percussion section, usually located at the back of the ensemble, rehearses separately these days — and when they are in the room with everyone else, they are seated in the audience section of the concert hall, about 15 feet away.

Everyone is wearing a mask (musicians playing instruments with a mouthpiece cut small holes in their masks to play). Trumpets and other brass instruments have been fitted with bell covers; clarinets and other woodwind instruments are encased in custom-made bags. Rehearsals, which normally run 90 minutes, have been reduced to two 30-minute periods, with a 20-minute break in the middle. The conductor, also masked, is wearing a wireless microphone.

All these steps have been taken to limit airborne transmission of the coronavirus. At the beginning of rehearsal, students clean their music stand, chair and equipment with an antiseptic wipe. After class, they do it again. That next show date? Unclear — there are no live performances this semester. 

Yet the ensemble plays on, a portrait of will and persistence, according to its music director Terry Austin. 

“There’s a certain stubbornness I think we all have that, ‘OK, we’re in a bad situation but we still want to make music with our students and they still want to make music with each other, and so we’ve got to figure out some way of doing it,’” said Austin, Ph.D., a professor of music education and interim chair of the Department of Music in the School of the Arts. “And it can't be the way it normally is, but we can figure out ways to do it safely. And we have.”

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Throughout VCU this fall, professors and students have found creative ways to continue their work. It has not been easy. While the abrupt pivot to online learning in March was a case of remote emergency instruction and shifting quickly to virtual classrooms, the summer and fall have been about adapting for the long run and modifying curriculum for a hybrid learning environment that will extend at least through the first half of 2021.

Still, ingenuity among faculty and students has allowed for some of the ordinary rhythms of daily university life to return, even though things look different. VCU News spoke with faculty in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and schools of Nursing, World Studies, Pharmacy, Business and Arts about their experiences this fall, and the challenges, issues and successes they are having as they teach in an extraordinary time.

a wind ensemble rehearses during the COVID-19 pandemic, as musicians and the conductor wear masks
Terry Austin and the VCU symphonic wind ensemble. The ensemble has gone to great lengths to limit the spread of COVID-19 while still managing to play music together. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

For Austin, the new arrangement allows him to bring a group of musicians together safely. But it also has led to challenges. Proximity is important in a wind ensemble, and the distance means it’s harder to stay together as a unit. The instrument coverings “do all sorts of different things with the tone of the instruments [and] the intonation characteristics of the instruments,” Austin said. Notes that are usually flat are now sometimes sharp, and vice versa. “You’re driving on the wrong side of the road,” he said.

And, of course, there’s the absence of a performance in front of a live audience. But that also provides an opportunity to focus more on the craft of making music. Austin has taken to treating rehearsal as “a kind of performance lab” to dig into forming good habits and play more effectively as an ensemble. He said the challenges with the new setup require students “to be more intentional about what they do.”  

“The first few rehearsals with the instrument covers, it was like, ‘ugh, this doesn’t sound good.’ And everyone was hating it,” Austin said. “But now they just appreciate being able to play. The sound and intonation have improved enormously over the last six to eight weeks.”

He has been impressed with his students and their resiliency. Music performance, he said, is a shared experience, and that experience was disrupted in March. It was difficult on him and his students, he said.

“I’m really, really proud of them,” Austin said. “Even though this isn’t an ideal situation, it’s a safe situation, and we can make music together. We’re really very thankful to have the opportunity to make music together, even in reduced circumstances like this.”

Many professors at VCU — including Austin — are proof that adjusting to the pandemic is not as simple as recording a lecture and uploading it to an online class discussion board. Bernard K. Means, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, had multiple concerns when it came to adapting to the coronavirus protocols on campus. Besides teaching classes, Means runs a laboratory that 3D prints ancient artifacts. 

“It’s been challenging,” he said.

Faculty member teaches classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is wearing a face mask
In addition to running a laboratory that 3D prints ancient artifacts, Bernard Means is teaching four hybrid instruction classes this fall, with students attending in person and virtually. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Means shut down his lab on March 19 and was not able to return until June 16. He had to develop a safety plan for undergraduate students, student workers and interns to operate in the lab. He had to space the machines and workspaces far enough apart and make sure supplies to operate the machines did not get cross contaminated with the virus. 

He has found a way to run the lab, but believes students are not getting the same experience. He had to limit access to some machines because they are hard to clean. And students are not able to go to museums and other locations to conduct research and meet museum professionals because many museums are closed or have limited access.  

Means is teaching four classes this fall. Three are in person and online where the students can log on to the lecture when they want. His other class, an anthropology capstone course, is in person and the online component is live because students are required to participate. 

Overall, Means said the process is working, but he emphasized that it requires a lot of time to teach online and in person. He produces videos outside of class for the students who are learning online.

“I tried recording my lectures live with a mask but the mic was muted too much,” Means said. “You couldn’t make out what I was saying. So I have to do all the lectures in advance. That has really been one of the biggest issues for me.”

faculty member teaches during the covid-19 pandemic
Bernard Means in the classroom. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

In general, Means said he and other faculty are adapting, but the learning environment is challenging for the students, especially since some are not in Richmond. He talked about a project in his “Death and Burial” class where one of the students is living in California. For the class, students go to a cemetery and study burial plots. The goal is to understand how social positions play a role in where a person is buried. 

“I went out and my interns went out and we took lots of photos,” Means said. “We put them online and I told the students, ‘Try to do what you can.’ It’s different because a big part of Hollywood Cemetery is how the landscape controls the way the story is being told.”

Means said he often thinks about his time as a college student and how talking directly to professors and fellow students was such an important part of the learning experience. The students who are online do not get that experience, and that can take away from the overall university experience, he said. 

“Some aspects of socializing that are really important to learn in person are not there.” 

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Like Means, Jeff Smith’s graduate class in supply chain management is taught in person, with some students also logging in virtually. Smith, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems and Supply Chain Management in the School of Business, believes it is easier to teach graduate students in the current environment. Many graduate students, especially in the business school, have already started professional careers and are more suited to operate in an online environment. 

Smith is not new to online teaching. He has been teaching an online M.B.A. class since 2007 and believes the current situation might lead to new and better ways to teach.

“I think there are a lot of positives as far as how you can do education effectively,” Smith said. “Maybe this will open new markets? Maybe you can reach different student populations? It can increase access to education.”

However, like Means, Smith worries about the difficulty in recreating the social component of college, especially for undergraduate students.

“I think it’s really stressing the undergrads, and we don’t think that because they are used to technology. They grew up with technology,” Smith said. “No, it’s the social interactions that are missing. It’s the ability to see your friends. It’s the ability to have a college experience.” 

Students practicing social distancing while attending UNIV 191 – You First at VCU, a one credit class for first-generation students that will help connect them with academic and social resources to achieve their goals. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
Click to view slideshow. Students practicing social distancing while attending UNIV 191 – You First at VCU, a one credit class for first-generation students that will help connect them with academic and social resources to achieve their goals. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

That interaction — both between students and instructors and between students and each other — is something that Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., an assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy, has been well aware of. Pharmacy students move through the four-year program together, and Caldas’ largest class — a community pharmacy course of approximately 100 to 130 first-year students — typically meets in person for lectures and labs. Heading into the fall, Caldas adjusted how she would teach, balancing health protocols, individual needs and a desire to maintain some sense of community. 

Instead of having students come to the lab to learn how to use drug-dispensing software, Caldas had them complete digital exercises. Rather than practice taking blood pressure on a person, she brought students in small groups to practice on the school’s lifelike mannequin. For blood-sugar tests, she provided materials and had students complete the tests at home.

“They took videos of themselves and submitted it,” Caldas said. “We also compounded [medication] capsules this way because I can have them practice [by] hand-punching capsules with flour and sugar; I don’t need active ingredients.”

Faculty member teaching from their home office, with her elementary school-aged children doing homework on the floor
Lauren Caldas in her home office, where she works 2-3 days a week. The room has a second desk for her son to do homework when he comes home from school. (Edward Caldas, for VCU News)

Her changes trimmed in-person instruction to about a half-dozen lessons — all with remote options. When she had to bring students to campus, she gave them more space, working with colleagues to spread her lab across a floor of rooms in the Robert Blackwell Smith Building.

Asynchronous learning — in which instructors and students don’t interact at the same time — is hard on faculty, she said, and everyone loses something by not being together, even with video conferencing and online forums. But it’s also important for students to be able to do work when they can, Caldas said.

“They don’t live in a bubble,” she said. “They have lives, and children, and people getting sick. And I want them to be successful in this program and have access to all this regardless of what their home circumstance may be. This has forced us all to learn these technologies and be adaptable.”

It’s also important, she said, to maintain a sense of humor. While teaching from home one day, Caldas’ WiFi connection cut out, randomly assigning a student as the new Zoom host and leaving Caldas’ class stranded in breakout rooms.

“I couldn’t get them out,” Caldas said with a laugh. “Luckily, the school’s technology team has an emergency line and got me fixed within five minutes. The students never had any idea, except for the one who was randomly assigned as the host.”

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Dana Burns, D.N.P, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Health Nursing in the School of Nursing, said students in her “Foundational Perspective of Family Centered Care” lecture class are more anxious than in the past. 

“I do worry about them,” Burns said. “My students are graduate students that are working nurses. They work in hospitals and some are parents with young children at home. COVID-19 is very real and directly impacting every aspect of their lives. They are in survival mode, juggling many roles. Keeping them actively engaged is a challenge.”

She spends the first five to 10 minutes of class checking in with her students so they feel comfortable venting their concerns, she said. “I think they are surviving, growing at times and learning.”

She sees this as the perfect opportunity to use COVID-19 as a “learning tool as to how it impacts family and health care,” she said.

Her class is now a hybrid where students can use Zoom or attend in person. Using Zoom helps students see how they can use the same skills to be ready to be telehealth providers, she said.

Blending online and in-class teaching can be a challenge. Lecturing with a mask on affects Burns’ ability to be heard. “I am yelling because some of the students are in the back of the room,” she said. “Getting to know students is challenging too. There is not as much opportunity to personally connect.”   

The pandemic has not only meant trying new things for classroom instruction. Capital News Service, which produces stories for more than 100 clients across the state, including The Associated Press, has had to take a new approach to coverage.

“We want to cover certain events, but we have restrictions due to COVID,” said Veronica Garabelli, co-director of Capital News Service and a journalism instructor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Things you would have covered in the past, you have to cover differently now.” 

Reaching sources is also more challenging. “We usually encourage students to call or meet in person, but due to COVID-19 we don’t require them to meet in person. Now we encourage doing interviews over the phone and on Zoom, email is the last resort,” Garabelli said. 

Students are getting more creative in how they reach out to sources, tapping into social media outlets and crowdsourcing, she said.

“They are being resilient,” Garabelli said. “I’ve been impressed with how they have adapted. I think they are proactive about working around the challenges that come up.”

Those themes — of being resilient, adapting and struggling together through difficult circumstances — have resurfaced constantly in interviews throughout the semester. Caldas, the pharmacy professor, said it has been a year of “reevaluating priorities, not only in my teaching but in my life.”

Sitting in her home office in Hanover County in late October, she reflected on a semester that has pushed her to rethink her classes and the needs of her students — and has stretched her as a teacher, parent and person.

“You are sitting there and asking ‘What does the student need to learn and how do I deliver it to them?’” she said. “That’s something we had to really consider: how to work around individuals’ lives. And the same thing with having [your own] life in the background: ‘OK, I am going to have to pick my kids up at 2 p.m. today, because the after-school program has limited space and limited transportation.’ And, ‘It’s OK if I’m not on campus, as long as my WiFi is working.’”

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