Education has been one of the sectors most affected by the economic and societal disruptions brought on by COVID-19, but Kentucky’s educators are proving that making a rapid pivot to full-time distance learning is possible. And students and educators are proving they have the resiliency to not only survive but thrive.
“It is really up to us to decide how we look at this, and I have chosen to try and look at the bright side of things and realize that even though we won’t be graduating at a big ceremony with all of our family there, we still have achieved our goal and are moving on to bigger and better things,” said Kevin Cline, a senior at Lafayette High School in Lexington. “It also reminds us that life is not always fair, and sometimes you just have to go with the flow and make the best of a bad situation.”
Taking a bad situation and making the best of it has been a theme for all the state’s educators this spring.
At the University of Kentucky, pulling off online education for 30,000 students in a huge range of programs was a massive feat.
“When people have to pivot quickly they really can. It was amazing how fast it all came together,” UK Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation Kathi Kern said.
In practically an instant, there were expanded office hours for faculty, financial and emotional support for students, and technological training. Food pantries were set up, an all-new Teach Anywhere website created, one-on-one e-tutoring implemented, internships reworked, specific program requirements adjusted from the national level, student and faculty surveys sent out to implement best practices, and countless other tools and strategies developed.
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One of the biggest changes was that “almost every department and college agreed to a pass/fail option,” Kern said. Each UK school had to think about alternatives to traditional testing and assessments.
“Basically what we did at the beginning of COVID-19,” Kern said, “was challenge faculty to take their learning objectives for the course and think creatively as to how they can be met in a remote teaching scenario.”
Programs that already had been fully online or hybrid programs were able to provide a framework. Long-term, she hopes the aftermath will create greater instructional flexibility.
“Online delivery is not a restrictive space. It’s a generative space,” Kern said. “We already had so many faculty who had already taught online, and those faculty were able to help other faculty. They started a leadership team for faculty to share those experiences, and they have not had a single whining email.”
Providing structure in uncertain times
At Georgetown College, Instructor of Church History Joanna Lile had to rework her classes for online delivery, but got “a lot of great advice and guidance from other Georgetown faculty along the way.”
The experience, Lile said, will affect how she teaches moving forward, after COVID-19.
“In a way, I’m glad that I have been forced to rethink my assignments,” she said. “All of the assignments I am currently giving can just as easily transfer to face-to-face instruction after the pandemic, and for the most part these new assignments are more creative and engaging than what I was doing before.”
And the students have rolled with it.
“I have been impressed by how flexible my students have been,” Lile said. “They have transitioned to online learning very smoothly and have shown a lot of maturity. It is so encouraging to see students not only making deadlines, but continuing to turn in really thoughtful work. I have had several students tell me that having assignments has helped them maintain some much-needed structure during this otherwise unstructured time.”
Dealing with unstructured time is one area where UK is working to support students and offering direction in terms of executive focusing.
“It started out as something we were focusing on for students with disabilities, but it applies to all students in the event of a disruption in environment or a trauma,” Kern said. “We’ve done lots of surveys about both educational and basic needs. They’ve really focused on a holistic approach to supporting students.”
The holistic approach sometimes means meeting basic needs like internet access, food, and technology for students who have never before worked remotely or have limited means at home.
Building on experience
David McFaddin, interim president at Eastern Kentucky University, said he is thankful for the level of support they’ve been able to give students, and also for EKU’s previous online instructional prowess.
“In the early 2000s, Eastern was a first-mover in online education,” McFaddin noted. “We had built best practices and had strong leadership that was able to quickly take what we already knew worked best and use those tools to help each faculty member. We had a great framework and support services.”
Before COVID-19, about a third of EKU’s student population—roughly 3,500 students—were already fully online. Another big percentage of the school’s 15,000 students were also in hybrid programs, so moving online was not a monumental hurdle for many students.
“The biggest challenge for students and faculty is the emotional and psychological toll,” McFaddin said. “There’s a sense of loss that everyone has—that loss of connectivity and togetherness. And then, what happens on the other side?”
Like UK and others, EKU quickly set up counseling services for students who felt isolated or fearful. And on the educational side, they are being as flexible as possible with things like internships and practicums.
“One of the hallmarks for EKU is real-world experience,” McFaddin said. “We are very connected to the business community and economy. Internships are vitally important to be prepared for the workforce and apply it from the classroom to a safe environment. So we will handle that on the academic side. We don’t know what will happen with the economy, but we do know our mission is not going to change and our commitment to students is not going to change.
“We’ve been here since 1874 and we’ve endured many hardships and catastrophes,” he added. “We’ll meet students where they are when this is over. What we’ve proven here is that nearly anything can be taken online. The question is, ‘Can we design it in an educational way where students get the maximum experience out of it?’ Things we thought before were not possible are now possible with some innovation, ingenuity and a lot of hard work.”
Rapid response to needs
Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton expressed the utmost respect for the teachers, principals and parents who have made the transition work in a short amount of time.
Clayton said they had approximately 48 hours to figure out what to send home with the district’s 17,000 students – at the time unsure whether they’d see them again for the school year. The objective was always to provide remote learning opportunities that were both reasonable and meaningful.
“From the very beginning we made it clear to the parents that we were not going to try to duplicate what happens in the classroom,” Clayton said. “We were very transparent that our goal was to minimize any negative impact.”
The leadership and instructional teams worked quickly. By the last day of in-person school, every student who needed a tablet was sent home with one and all students had a paper packet in hand. And like other schools around the state, free meal services were quickly set up for those in need.
One key focus was making the senior class feel honored and supported.
“We don’t want them to feel forgotten. Our principals have done an outstanding job to find additional options to recognize them,” he said. “I think the positive affect from this is [the seniors] are going to be much more resilient in the next stage in life after experiencing this. They’ve been put in a position unlike any senior class before them. Students have told me that they’re going to be better prepared. The benefit will be the durability to persevere and become stronger because of this adversity.”
Transitioning into the unknown
For seniors in high school or college, especially, the shift in education also becomes a workforce development issue.
Beth Davisson, executive director of the Workforce Center and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce said students—like businesses—will be more nimble as a result of recent experiences. Davisson said the chamber’s job is to support these students and employers by making sure they have needs that match up well when the economy returns to normal.
“We’ll have to climb back to where we were; we were at 3% unemployment,” she said. “It will take patience. We will have to be skilled up in the ways we need. Goal No. 1 will be what employers need as they rebuild. There will be some benefit; this generation will be more adaptable.”
When the state shut down, the chamber almost immediately came up with a “Who’s Hiring” campaign to match displaced or laid-off workers with jobs to meet the needs of businesses deemed essential.
“We lost thousands of jobs, but also many new essential jobs have opened up,” Davisson said. “There is a huge temporary economy where workers are needed immediately. We’ve had to be nimble. COVID-19 is a terrible time and it has been hard, but you have to look for the opportunities and the ways that you can help.”
If someone lost their job or is entering the workforce, they can do online skills programs like certifications and trainings to find employment in high-demand jobs, even though that can be hard to think about when people are worried about their unemployment checks.
Moving forward, Davisson believes employers and schools will be more adaptable to remote work or learning.
“This has really proven to many business leaders that we’re coming into a very modern day and age. We’ve had to figure it out now, and we can do distance learning and distance working. We are just as productive, and maybe even more so! I don’t know that all of us believed that could be true before this. This will give us more of a comfort in technology and I hope allow it to evolve.”
Davisson also foresees continued merging of business clusters, like the way health care and manufacturing are currently working so closely together to meet the needs facing the state and the world. And she says education will reflect that.
“We will work very hard to find out what employers need and then project those needs out to our educators and workforce providers to build those programs together rather than in silos,” Davisson said.
Learning new technology
Teachers, despite the many challenges, are answering the call. Clayton said the Warren County Public Schools system has done two district-wide surveys and the response has been overwhelmingly positive: 90% of respondents gave a 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5) in regard to student-teacher communication. Other areas surveyed included workload, where 89.5 percent gave a 3 or higher.
Flexibility is key
Cline anticipates that the disruption of his senior year will give him an unexpected leg up when he heads to college in the fall.
“Online school has taught me the valuable lesson that in college, there is no one to force you to do your work,” he said. “It is completely up to you if you want to pass your classes, and I don’t think enough high school seniors know that before they go into college.”
And McFaddin thinks those college seniors heading into the workforce will also be well prepared, despite the changes.
“I do not think this is going to have any impact on job readiness for our students,” he said. “What I do think is that this economy and employers are going to try to build resiliency into their business models.”
As an institution, EKU is focusing on contingency planning.
“We don’t know when this will be over or if there is a second wave coming,” McFaddin said. “We’re hoping for the best and planning for the worst. We will be prepared to continue in this way with more intentionality and more focus and more intentional online delivery. Or if we see students showing up here en masse, we’ll be ready to get back on campus and reconnect. We’re going to stand ready to meet them at either place.” ■
Abby Laub is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]