Teaching Students During COVID-19 and How A University Adapted

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of life. This is especially true for college students and their universities. Education has changed dramatically in a short amount of time. Danielle King discusses with College Talks & More hosts Hanna and Cari about how COVID-19 has affected her career as a a college professor, and how her University keeps the students safe. Danielle is an adjunct professor of African American Studies in the department of History and Non Western Cultures. She is also involved in the Pre-Collegiate and Access Programs at Western Connecticut State University.

Danielle King

Everyone is struggling with COVID-19, but teachers and students are definitely in unchartered waters. I know many college students don’t know what to expect when attending their 2020-2021 school year. Danielle, can you give us an overview of your educational and professional background?

I graduated from Western Connecticut State University with a Master’s in English and from there, I really had a desire to begin teaching. I began teaching African American Studies because I saw that there was a need, and it ties in well with my background. My thesis was on slavery. It had to do with gender, slavery, and art, and how slavery has been depicted over the years. My goal is to develop an African American Studies department at Western Connecticut State University which will encompass everything that I have learned. I feel African American Studies is missing from curriculums across the nation.

How did things change for you and your students last year when the pandemic hit and colleges closed down?

To begin with, we had very little time to transition from being in class to lecturing on an online platform. However, the university was really good about immediately offering things like workshops, Blackboard, Webex, and Cultura. Teachers need to be able to succeed in an online forum. The biggest change, of course, was the initial transition to being online and quickly. I had to find a way to get my entire coursework online and find a dynamic way to keep teaching, so that my students could keep coming back each week. And that was quite a challenge. Many people and students, including professors, have struggled to keep to a schedule each day. I was certainly busy with students virtually during the first few weeks of the pandemic, and I really didn’t have an opportunity to fall off schedule.

Western Connecticut State University

My initial response was to make sure that my students had all the tools they needed to get through the pandemic. It was certainly a shift from being in this teaching position to feeling completely responsible for my students in the class, in every aspect. I felt that I had to ask them if they had laptops, or other necessities they needed to get through the class. Once that was settled in my mind, I could then, in good conscience, move on to focusing on truly teaching the class. And in a sense, our class essentially became our refuge, and it really brought a sense of normalcy to our lives.

How did you teach? Did you do virtual lessons, prerecorded lessons, or just assignments from the textbook?

At the start of the pandemic, I thought about what would be most beneficial to the students. Faculty was actually encouraged to teach asynchronously. However, I felt I should continue holding my class synchronously to create that sense of stability. I did virtual lessons that I had only been prepared to lecture in the classroom. Each week during the pandemic, I had to create a new lesson presentation for my students. We would view and discuss the material together each week online, in real time, where we could see each other. One of the greatest gifts that I received was sometimes you would see the families of the students just sitting in, listening along with my students. And I thought that was a really special moment. When I saw that, I knew that, yes, this was definitely the way to go.

Were all of your students able to do virtual classes last year when college closed, and what happened if they didn’t have a laptop?

To put it in perspective, I started with thirty-two students, and I ended the semester with twenty-five. Most of my students were able to attend their virtual classes when the college closed. However, I found that some of my students were essential workers, and they began working extended hours. So they were not able to participate or complete their work. I would try to work with them and encourage them not to drop out. I tried to be pretty flexible. As far as laptops, I was in a very unique situation in which I’m affiliated with Pre-Collegiate and Access Programs, which works with students to give them the things they need to succeed. And of course, a laptop is one of those things. So, fortunately, I was able to check on my class: they all had laptops, they all had internet access. The biggest challenges they faced were things like taking care of siblings or family members. And some of them did become ill.

Did Western Connecticut State University make any accommodations for students who couldn’t afford internet service or they didn’t have a laptop, and will they be doing that this year for students going back to school?

Taking classes from home

It’s times like these where you realize what the community is willing to do for you. Yes, Western did provide laptops to students. We’ve lent out about thirty to sixty laptops to students during the academic year. Depending on need, we’ve let the students keep them as well. We were able to provide these laptops even though there was a shortage at the stores. You couldn’t even buy a laptop at the store. As far as the internet connection, I do recall they were looking into that and making sure the students had internet connectivity at their homes.

One of the challenges that we’re all facing during the COVID-19 pandemic is communicating with each other. How did you communicate with your students, and what did you find to be the most effective way to communicate with them?

Initially, I communicated via email, which became my new best friend. Using email, I would set up a one-on-one virtual meeting if I needed to clarify or discuss a topic with a student. And during those first weeks, I really felt it was important to check in individually, not just in a class or via email. So I used a program called Calendly which shows all of my time and availability. I would then send an invitation to each student in my class. All thirty students would choose a time for a meeting that worked for them. The program became a go-to throughout the rest of the semester. We were communicating by meeting one on one, which wouldn’t necessarily have happened if we hadn’t been thrust into this pandemic.

What’s the leniency on assignment due dates, knowing that all students needed to adjust as they were not prepared for COVID-19 shutting down the school?

I know for me that there was definitely leniency with due dates. I basically altered my assignments when we shut down. I realized everyone was worried, and I felt that the best thing I could do for my students was to give them a sense that I wanted them to come to class and stay connected. The last thing I needed to do was to be very stringent and strict about due dates and assignments. I altered my expectations and became less rigorous. I encouraged my students to communicate with me if they encountered difficulties during the week that may have prevented them from submitting an assignment. I wanted that communication so I would know and understand that they weren’t shirking their responsibilities.

Most schools decided to close over spring break. For students who lived on campus, did you find that some had no place to go when Western decided to close down?

Yes, unfortunately, that was the case. In particular, in Pre-Collegiate, we worked with two students who were actually homeless to begin with. We didn’t know they were homeless until they shared that with us. They were relatively new to the program. Otherwise, we certainly would have known. Their dorm at the school was their home and this really shone a light on that situation. We helped advocate for those students to stay in the dorm, even though they were trying to clear the residence halls. Eventually, the students were allowed to remain in the dorms during the lockdown. During that time we provided them food. And we checked in with them from time to time. This situation has illuminated our awareness of students, who in general attend college, but have no home to go back to. That’s something we have to certainly focus on, and not wait for another situation like this to address.

Throughout the U.S., colleges are starting to open back up and getting ready for the fall semester. Is Western Connecticut State University going back to school in person or virtually? When is your start date?

Our start date is Thursday, August 26th, and we have a combination of offerings in which students will return in person. I, actually, will be teaching on campus in person. I feel that it’s important to, as long as we can do it safely. I’m confident in the measures that have been put in place for our safety. There are classes that are offered online. There are hybrid classes, which is a combination of the two. So students, depending on their comfort level, can certainly choose what works best for them.

What protective measures are schools taking now? And in reality, how effective do you think they will be, and will masks be required?

Yes, masks are definitely required for absolutely everyone. We’ve had so many dedicated meetings on the protective measures that are being implemented, and everyone has been really transparent as far as their planning process. Faculty and staff have been a large part of the process. There’s protective measures put on everything, from restrooms to residence halls. Restrictions have been put on visitors. Gatherings are very limited. We’ve also put a directional flow to traffic on campus.

We’re very aware of the numbers of people who are gathering in a certain place at one time. And most of that has to do with scheduling of classes, which I can imagine has been a challenge. At the dining halls, disinfection and sanitizing stations have been put up. Cleaning has been put in place for classrooms. I feel the planning has been very thorough. They’ve even addressed the air flow in classrooms and buildings to make it is as safe as it can possibly be. I feel pretty comfortable going back, but of course, only time will tell.

In-person class during COVID-19 pandemic

It really sounds like Western Connecticut State University is looking into all aspects of COVID-19 and making sure everyone is protected. You mentioned everyone has to wear a mask. What happens if someone forgets their mask and walks into a classroom? And did they limit class sizes this year?

They are providing instructors with extra masks, so if a student forgets their mask, they will be provided one by the instructor. We also have extra sanitizer in the classroom. Class sizes have been made smaller. My class size is usually about 32-35 students, but this year I will be limited to 20 students. I will also be teaching in a larger classroom with auditorium seating. This ensures social distancing.

In dorm rooms, students usually have a roommate, friends come over and you hang out. What precautions are being taken specifically for dormitories and dorm rooms?

Certain dorms and suites have been set aside to isolate students who become sick. If we can identify a sick student quickly, we can isolate them, and hopefully stop the spread of the virus. Apart from that, we are requiring six feet social distancing. The residence halls have been marked with directional flow arrows to indicate which way you should walk. Gathering spots and study areas will not be available this year to reduce the amount of gatherings. The residence halls will be cleaned twice a day by our faculty staff. We’ve installed sanitizing supplies for everyone to use. Plexiglass partitions have been installed in the bathrooms. Basic orientation for students arriving on campus will take place outdoors and in smaller groups.

If a person is susceptible to getting really sick from COVID-19, and they don’t feel comfortable taking classes in person, will you be live streaming?

I’m still thinking about that at this point, because I noticed that I do have someone in my class who is older, significantly older, and she just is so dedicated to coming to class. I don’t want anyone to get really sick, so I would like to make that an option.

Will Western Connecticut State University have a phased re-opening, where some safety measures are relaxed in the spring, or will they be implemented for the whole school year?

The safety precautions put in place are expected to be enforced for the whole school year. We feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry. We are hoping to open up more classes if the number of COVID-19 cases keep going down in our area. We don’t want to be like the University of North Carolina, where they had to transition to online classes after only being open a few days.

What were your most effective online teaching methods?

Vinyl record player for class add-on

I’d say the most effective online teaching method that I’ve used is simply teaching synchronously and using as many diverse add-ons that I could implement into each teaching session. I would use personal items to help drive lessons home and keep my students connected. For example, in a class that I was teaching from home, I used my turntable to play some speeches of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have his speeches on vinyl. And this lesson was particularly appealing, because many students were interested in the turntable, the vinyl record, and the album cover itself. Additionally, students were also able to hear Dr. King’s voice and intonation and speeches that aren’t usually heard. This was a great class, because we were able to discuss the African American vernacular tradition, Dr. King, and the civil rights movement. For another class I showed my students a painting that contained a Langston Hughes quote, and we were able to link the painting and quote to the Harlem Renaissance. I believe in using lots of visuals and incorporating essays and literary works of all kinds art, etc. I think if it pertains to the lesson, it should be added. Also, for some classes during this time, I sent invitations to the students to join me for an afternoon in the literary salon of African American secrets from various years. I thought that that was really effective too, because I used the invitation to spark interest and to draw students into the lecture. It made it a little more fun. I feel that teaching online helped me to grow, and I’m actually looking forward to utilizing those things in the actual classroom.

Do you think high school seniors are being adequately prepared for a successful college career with everything that’s going on with COVID-19?

I do not believe that high school seniors are being effectively prepared for college, despite the transition to online learning. I’m really proud to say that our Pre-Collegiate and Access Programs team has consistently continued to execute programs, activities, and support for our high school seniors. They will definitely be ready to go to college next year, as we continue to offer programs such as SAT prep and workshops that focus exclusively on going to college, such as financials, etc. This week, we’re going to begin meeting with high school seniors and their parents. These types of meetings will continue on throughout the academic year, and we’ll provide guidance as we always have. Those are just all students that we’ve been working with. I worry about the majority. We have sixty-five students, those are sixty-five students that we’ve impacted. What about the rest? It’s very scary, and I think more has to be done. We are a little program, but we’re making a larger impact. There needs to be more programs. These upward bound programs work with students, but more has to be done. I just don’t think high school seniors are there yet in being prepared for college.

What are the major challenges that you’ve found that students are having with the online learning?

Some students are finding out that online learning isn’t necessarily the best platform for their academic endeavors or their achievement. And unfortunately, other students are not even aware that online learning is not for them. And they’re really the ones that I worry about most, because if you don’t know there’s an issue, how do you fix it? I find that many students are struggling to find discipline. They need the structure required to get through their work as they’re really accustomed to that traditional classroom format. It’s worrisome, because what are the options if they’re not able to go to school, and they’re not succeeding at home on their own? They don’t have the guidance they need, because their parents have to go to work or they’re distracted. It’s truly a troubling issue that I think we have to address.

Outside of the online learning struggle, what are the major struggles students are facing with going into the 2020-2021 school year?

Mental health during COVID-19

The major struggles that I’ve seen is basically how things have changed. We need to look at the struggles that students are facing socially, with not being able to interact with their friends, and their mental health. Students need a support system to get through this. It’s not everyone who can handle all the changes that come their way alone. Just getting to college is going to be a challenge. When you think about students that don’t necessarily have the financial where-with-all, maybe they’re first generation students, and they don’t really know the way. Then along comes this pandemic that throws everything off kilter, and it sort of pushes that golden door a little further away from them. It almost seems that college is not an obtainable goal for many, and some are going to give up. Those are the struggles I see.

What are the major struggles teachers are facing, and are all teachers coming back for the upcoming school year?

At Western Connecticut State University, teachers have the option teach remotely, come in, or do a hybrid. Every faculty member has been given that option. For the most part, I believe right now that most teachers are opting to teach online and do the hybrid models. I am definitely in the minority with coming back on campus. We’ll see how that works. I’ve said it before that it is important to have someone to interact with. If a teacher is comfortable with teaching in person, they should be able to.

The struggle that teachers are facing is that students are not prepared to learn on an online format. They’re very distracted at home. They’re not focusing on the lesson, and their parents are not able to provide the support that’s needed. The parents just don’t know how to help. Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. It’s very difficult to monitor students who are online, they turn off their screen. You don’t know if they’re even there. For me, you’re required to have that screen on, unless you are stepping away to go to the restroom. Obviously we don’t want to see that. So it’s definitely going to be interesting.

Why did you decide to teach African American Studies at Western Connecticut State University?

Danbury, CT

I always had it in my mind that I would teach it. It just happened that I teach at Western, because I love Western. I went to school there. I know the community, and I feel at home. It was a natural fit, a natural segue. Largely, African American studies, especially those that provide an in-depth look at African American history are missing from curriculums across the world, not just the nation, the world. For many students, I find that their first foray into African American Studies is usually as a college freshman. I want to be the person to meet those students and be able to really impact the way they think about African American Studies and the Black experience. I always wanted to teach the history of what it means to be Black in America and to expose the revolutions students have never even heard about before. I saw the void. I wanted to make a difference. Here I am at WCSU opening minds and, frankly, changing lives.

Do you notice that most of your students are African-American, or are they diverse with all cultures and backgrounds?

Chicago, IL

The majority has been African-American. I would say it’s about an 80/20 split, and I would love to see it being more diverse. The way that I’m interpreting that is that these African Reference students are coming in because they don’t know. Every single lecture they’ll say to me, I didn’t know that. And everyone else didn’t know it either. I relish the fact, and I welcome everyone to come in, because there’s so much to learn about African American history. We learn about the Civil War. Well, we need to have a course in slavery. We learn about the Renaissance. Have we heard about the Harlem Renaissance? Do we know that there was a Boston Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance? We need these courses. I’m looking forward to seeing people from different backgrounds coming to my class.

I received an email at the end of the spring semester. It was from a student who was not African American. He told me that a lot of his other professors had simply sort of given up and handed him his assignments each week. They didn’t meet synchronously. He said I was the only one who did that every week. He could rely on me being there. He mentioned that the content was so informative. His e-mail was a gift. It was a gift, especially, since he was not African American, and he really saw the value of what he was learning.

What else does the Pre-Collegiate and Access Program do at Western Connecticut State University? And how else do they help students?

There are many ways we work with students in middle school, high school, and in college. We host workshops that teach critical skills, such as college note-taking three times a week. We also educate students on how to use Blackboard, how to obtain a college ID to navigate Banner. Banner’s important so that you can look up your GPA, pay your tuition, things like that. And we host other workshops on topics like math concepts. Something really important that we do is we have mentors, and they’re matched with our students for one on one help. We teach our students how to interview for scholarships. We invite members from all parts of the university to join our virtual meetings with our students. People from financial aid, registrars, accessibility, they all come in and speak with our students.

We’re still offering these programs, but we’re doing it virtually. The programs were essential to our students, especially during the lockdown. We offered activities that kept them focused and busy with very little downtime. Some of those activities were things like Music Mondays. We did virtual museum tours, which were fun. We implemented the chess club, the debate club, and the book club. We even had something called school room, where students had to check in every day as if they were in school. We really kept the students on track. That, I would say, is really one of our basic methods of success. It’s keeping our students busy, because obviously when you’re busy, you’re not getting into trouble.

Woman boxer

What are your favorite pastimes when you’re not teaching?

You might find me swimming at the beach. I like to go hiking with my dog. And sometimes I go to a professional boxing gym in Danbury. It keeps me fit and ready to get into the classroom, so I can give students my best shot.

Out of all of your honors and awards, which one are you most proud of?

I would say that I’m really proud of receiving an award for my thesis on slavery, gender, and art. I realized that as the first college graduate in my immediate family, this recognition really points to everything that my ancestors wished for me. However, beyond that, I’m feeling most proud of the fact that I’m able to impact students positively. I want to ignite a passion in them to gain knowledge and not just to pass the test. Receiving that award meant I received my degree and that I’m able to do something I love. I’d say that’s the best gift of all.

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