The Charger Blog

Health Sciences Community Reflects on Lessons Learned During the Pandemic

Four members of the University’s School of Health Sciences have co-authored a journal article in which they look back on how the University navigated the pandemic, what they learned, and what other educators should take from the experience.

July 28, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Students on campus
Students on campus display their “COVID-19 cleared” status.

For Savannah Papuga ’21 A.S., ’22 learning remotely during the pandemic presented a variety of challenges that she had to learn to navigate. She managed distractions and adapted to taking part in virtual simulations and remote examinations of clinical case studies.

Savannah Papuga ’21 A.S.
Savannah Papuga ’21 A.S., ’22, a dental hygiene major, on campus.

“The pandemic taught me how important self-care is,” said Papuga, a dental hygiene major. “The pandemic forced us all into such isolation, and it was extremely difficult being away from my family and friends. It was sometimes difficult to focus due to my parents working from home, or because the two dogs were barking.”

Like her fellow Chargers, Papuga learned to manage the many changes that the pandemic brought to her life, both in and out of the classroom. She and several of her fellow members of the University’s School of Health Sciences are now sharing their experiences in “Lessons Learned: Teaching In-Person During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which was recently published in the academic journal Frontiers in Education.

Papuga’s co-authors included faculty and staff members, who shared their own unique perspectives, expertise, and lessons learned. For Robin Kerkstra, RDH MSDH, an assistant professor in the University’s Allied Health Department, her experience during the pandemic shaped her teaching and her interactions with students. She says she adapted her teaching to focus on her students’ immediate and day-to-day needs, something that required flexibility but has proven to be critical to serving her students.

“I became more aware of the need for compassion in response to the physical, mental, and emotional strains of the pandemic,” she said. “I learned that although my course content is important, acknowledging the students for who they are and what they carry with them physically, mentally, and emotionally to class is important. I will continue to acknowledge this long after the pandemic.”

‘All of us struggled during a global pandemic’

Discussing the challenges the pandemic presented to the University community, the authors outline measures the University took to keep Chargers safe, such as requiring face coverings to be worn on campus and the dedication of the University’s COVID Task Force. In sharing how the University navigated the pandemic, they offered many lessons learned, exploring how faculty prepared for returning to in-person classes, how innovative practices were developed, and how mental health challenges were addressed.

Sarah Gardocki
Sarah Gardocki, one of the paper’s co-authors.

While discussing the mental health concerns of students, faculty, and staff, the authors highlighted concerns that Chargers – like so many – faced throughout the pandemic, such as emotional exhaustion and burnout. As they were adjusting to the pandemic and juggling concerns for the health, safety, and well-being of their loved ones, students also had to figure out how to adapt to learning from home and what this meant for their work/life balance.

“I hope this article really highlights the ways in which all of us struggled during a global pandemic,” said Sarah Gardocki, the School of Health Sciences director of operations and one of the paper’s co-authors. “At times, it was easy to forget that we all – faculty, staff, and students – were facing similar challenges with stay-at-home orders and even isolations and quarantines.”

‘Schools need to have a plan’

Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH, an assistant professor of public health and a co-author of the article, learned many valuable lessons during the pandemic, including the importance of having open and honest conversations with his students.

Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH.
Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH.

Hoping to offer valuable guidance to others in the field, Dr. Tran says learning from COVID is crucial, since research suggests there will be more public health threats, including potential future pandemics – a concern exacerbated, he says, by climate change. He hopes their work will encourage other educators in the field of public health to prepare for such scenarios.

“It is critical to have a pandemic response plan moving forward,” said Dr. Tran, who also serves as the University’s assistant provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Many of our programs in the School of Health Sciences require interactions with patients for a certain number of contact hours, and, often, accreditation for the programs depends on it. In a pandemic involving an infectious disease that is spread from person to person, patient interaction isn’t always feasible. Therefore, schools need to have a plan.”

‘The opportunity to work with such an incredible team’

The authors are endeavoring to help other colleges and universities develop such a plan. They identified several challenges that the pandemic has presented in higher education, such as a lack of classroom space to accommodate physical distancing requirements and addressing student recruitment and retention concerns, and they offered recommendations for addressing these challenges. They also emphasize the importance of a flexible emergency learning plan.

Robin Kerkstra
Robin Kerkstra, RDH MSDH, an assistant professor in the University’s Allied Health Department.

“I hope colleges and universities realize professors now have a ‘Plan B’ in place,” said Prof. Kerkstra. “In many cases, ‘Plan B’ worked well and allowed for best practices within an alternative content delivery style. I hope some policies will be amended to allow professors some flexibility with course delivery options based on the needs of the current student cohort. Our published work can serve as a resource to assist other colleges and universities, helping them navigate through uncharted waters.”

In addition to educating others in the field, creating the article served as an invaluable learning experience for Papuga, the dental hygiene major. She says collaborating on the piece was “one of her greatest accomplishments thus far,” and she looks forward to being a part of more research in the field of health sciences.

“A number of my professors have published textbooks that are used in the field, and I hope that someday I can get there,” she said. “This experience was how I got my toes wet, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such an incredible team. Being part of the team to create this paper not only gave me the information and tools necessary to be published, but it helped me become a stronger writer and editor. I am excited to jump in and see where I can go from here!”