Story by Rachel Rasmussen and Makenna Green
A year ago, on March 13th COVID was declared a national emergency and everything seemingly changed overnight. At CSU, everything moved to remote learning. Plans of how to help students on campus set in, and the work environment for many took a drastic turn. Now, a year later, things still aren’t completely normal, but many have learned to work with what we have and adapt to the climate we live in.
When the idea of working remotely and not returning to campus first was announced, it was unnerving to go into something we had yet to experience. When Brian Jones, Professor in the Physics Department, found out that everything at CSU would be going online after spring break, his first thoughts and concerns were on his students and how most of his work and teachings are focused on human interaction.
Jones teaches PH 121 and PH 122, General Physics I and II, out of Johnson Hall, where his class is set up for students to work together in small groups.
“It’s all communicating with your fellow students,” Jones said. “And the reason I do that is because that’s how people learn best. We are social creatures and by being able to interact with other humans we learn things, we share ideas, we turn on certain parts of our brain that help us form connections and learn new things.”
When the shutdown hit, Jones, like many other professors at CSU, realized that he would have to restructure everything in his classes to meet the new online format that began last spring. This meant figuring out how to best teach the material using recorded lectures, Zoom meetings, and online simulations for the labs.
Meanwhile, in the Health and Exercise Department, Professor Kimberly Burke was also hard at work trying to find the perfect balance between asynchronous and synchronous classes for her students. Burke teaches HES 340: Exercise Prescription and HES 386: Adult Fitness Practicum.
Before the shutdown, HES 340 was a practical exercise programming-based face-to-face lab taught by Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). In HES 386, students worked with community members in one of CSU’s gyms where they provided hands-on learning experiences for members. Like Jones, Burke had to utilize recorded lectures, video submissions from students, Zoom classes, and online simulations for her teaching.
“It was a really steep learning curve. It led to an interesting transition into summer,” said Burke.
For HES 386 specifically, the summer semester was entirely online and provided students with the challenge of working with their community members through a camera. Burke said it was difficult because some of the stuff can’t really be taught online or over Zoom.
“You can’t really simulate how to take someone’s blood pressure without the cuff and without the equipment,” said Burke. Instead, she had to find and rely on good videos and simulations to help with the real-world training.
Along with the challenges of online classes, both Jones and Burke also had to figure out how to organize the format of two programs that they are the respective directors of. Jones is the Director of Little Shop of Physics and Burke is the Director of the Adult Fitness Program. Both programs are centered around students working with the CSU community and using skills they have learned in their majors.
During pre-COVID times, the Little Shop of Physics would go to k-12 grade schools around Fort Collins and set up hundreds of hands-on science displays that kids could touch, put their faces up to, talk into, scream into, and more. According to their website, the Little Shop of Physics “seeks to find creative ways to share the wonder of science with people of all ages, backgrounds and interests.”
Since the pandemic hit, Jones and the Little Shop of Physics workers and volunteers had to come up with ways where they could still interact with the schools around Fort Collins. This is where they came up with the idea of Physics Live. This is a program that they do on Zoom with other schools every Friday where they can still demonstrate experiments to the students but now from the safety of their homes.
“I was definitely excited enough for the challenge,” said Jones. “With Little Shop of Physics, I knew we would find some creative and fun ways to kind of ride off the pandemic.”
The Adult Fitness Program, similar to HES 386, allows students to work with adult members of the CSU community for hands-on experience through student-led group fitness classes. Their website says that the program provides “clinical experiences for students and a forum for research while promoting the benefits of physical activity among adults in the community.”
But, since the shutdown, students and community members have had to turn to online platforms to continue working. The program has created a YouTube channel that allows community members to go through workouts and training alongside the students and staff who are leading the videos. Students have also paired up individually with clients and talked through email, over the phone, over Zoom, or in-person with masks to continue their trainings.
However, recently, the Adult Fitness Program welcomed back their first members into the gym.
“I’m really excited for the students and the opportunity to get back to what has always been the point of this class and the practicum experience,” said Burke.
With CSU’s campus slowly opening back up, Jones and Burke reflect on the biggest challenges they have faced as well as what the future may look like for classes.
“I think keeping people engaged is the real trick,” Jones said. “Once people start checking out, things go downhill very fast. My big thing is that I try to be really honest with people about what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
Both Jones and Burke have tried to emphasize their availability to their students and their understanding that online learning can put anyone at a technological or even mental disadvantage with synchronous or asynchronous classes.
“It was the same struggle [with] a lot of people with the unknown landscape and just trying to do your best to communicate,” said Burke. “And recognizing that people would be going back home, or have family members to take care of, or trying to get a job. So it became the balance of do I keep synchronous lectures do I go asynchronous? How much is too much? And trying to balance all that with mental health and wellbeing at the time.”
During this spring semester, Burke’s HES 340 class managed to have a hybrid lecture section with a 100% in-person lab, and her HES 386 class is 100% in-person as a practicum-based class. Jones’ two classes have hybrid lectures with 100% in person labs.
The experience in this new age of learning has been somewhat positive so far for these professors, “Our students have been fantastic. CSU Students have been following rules, doing everything that they need to do, and being super respectful so that we can continue to do in person instruction. And I feel really safe on campus because everyone is behaving themselves, everyone is following the rules, everyone understands that wearing a mask is something that I do for you. And the bonds, the respect, the trust here has been really clear to me. I feel really fortunate to be at CSU during this time,” said Jones.
The Office of Admissions understands the challenges professors have faced of not being able to fully interact with students, as it has always been an in-person interaction-based experience. From showing prospective students and families around campus to helping them work through applications, unfortunately, because of the last year, the majority of that has been put on hold. Heather Daniels director for the office of admissions discussed what it has been like for them this year. The entire office continues to be remote and unfortunately, visitors have yet to be welcomed back on campus since this all hit last March.
“Admissions is all about relationship-building, and we thrive on meeting with prospective students and their families in person. We haven’t been able to do that in over a year,” explained Daniels. In an office full of extroverted employees who enjoy being around people, it has been a challenging year, but they also recognize the positives that have come out of this.
“We have so much more opportunity to engage with students and be more inclusive in how we are reaching students,” said Daniels.
Going forward, Daniels has a positive outlook for what admissions will look like coming out of this. She explained that because of test cancellations, public universities were given the option to be test-optional for the incoming class of 2021. Daniels stated, “We know that students’ high school grades are more indicative of their future success in college than admission tests, and are hopeful that we can remain test-optional indefinitely to remove the barriers that the tests present for many students.”
Working on campus
Remaining remote however even from the beginning has not been an option for many departments across campus. They had frontline workers in maintenance, dining staff, and housing who were continuously working through the pandemic and the limitations it set. At the start of the pandemic it was difficult, and still is at times, to know how to go forward especially with so much still unknown.
For many departments, in the beginning, they struggled to get enough personal protective equipment to keep all their workers safe, especially as some continued to interact with students who had to remain on campus. As Assistant Director for Support Services in Housing & Dining Facilities, Karyn Leblanc saw this first hand at the beginning of the pandemic when trying to make sure all Housing and Dining Facilities employees were safe.
She had employees who had to be in person not just on campus, but also in the warehouse. They also had a team whose main concern was transporting students to quarantine, an activity that came with its own challenges. “We had to look for ways to do things we had never done before,” Leblanc explained.
Fortunately, out of this experience for Leblanc and her team came a sense of new creativity for solving the problems being faced while also being able to promote more sustainability by not having workers commute to the office. Masks were made to help with shortages for workers and relationships between their buyers and vendors became even better.
For anyone working during this pandemic especially those with employees the big question that is constantly being asked is, “Are we doing everything right?” It is often hard to say during such volatile times. Liz Poore who oversees residential dining explained how keeping her employees who had to be on campus from the very beginning of the pandemic was a major priority. Between figuring out meals and working out the kinks that come with technology, the positives can be difficult to recognize. Poore explained how throughout this time she has seen many positive outcomes, “People really stepped up with creative ways to fix problems.”
A new innovative idea has risen out of this year, dining services are looking into acquiring little meal carriers that can drive to dorms and deliver meals, this would be especially useful for delivering meals to sick students. These robots have already been in use at other universities and because of the pandemic, something that was most likely three years out may be coming to campus sooner.
Maintenance never stops
Alongside the challenges of living during these times, buildings on campus still need to be maintained, Aaron Mikulewicz who manages maintenance for housing and dining services explained how the change affected how his team operates. He has forty staff members who have to be in-person and on-campus working to keep everything running smoothly. Maintenance in residential housing provides 24/7 service to students.
The added concern of entering dorm rooms safely has changed how maintenance is approached. Before teams of two would handle calls, now because of social distancing and other health concerns it has become a one-person job. Despite the changes in how they operate Mikulewicz said that communication has improved during this time and this last year has led to looking at how they can work more efficiently.
The outlook for many has become more hopeful with the turn of the calendar year, even though there are still many uncertainties.
For CSU, the hope of more returning students and workers in person is in the works. One of the many positives is that for employees who would usually be working in offices there very well may be some options for how they would like to return to work, leading to an even more flexible work life.
As things move forward, the one thing that seems to always be present is resilience. It can be seen through the actions and positivity of the CSU community.