By Colleen Cason
In Cal Lutheran classrooms, students learn change is inevitable and to prepare themselves for lives of experimentation, adaptation and course correction, but few could have predicted the scale or speed of the changes brought on by the COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions in mid-March.
Over Zoom, with the campus emptied of all but the workers necessary to keep the physical plant running, President Chris Kimball said, “We are not stopping. We are moving ahead. The learning … is changed but it continues.”
The pandemic altered the way professors taught and students learned. It disrupted long-held dreams of studying abroad and of besting worthy athletic competitors. For the Class of 2020, it postponed a triumphant walk to claim a hard-won diploma. The crisis laid bare the systemic racial and ethnic inequities in every facet of American life, leaving us unable to turn our backs on a reckoning unconscionably deferred.
To alumni who carry the intangibles of their time on campus into the new territories they travel, it sometimes meant drawing on critical thinking skills to treat patients of a sinister virus the world had never seen.
This issue of CLU Magazine tells the stories of those who stepped up, found the courage to lead change and help others rise to the moment. We look at the lessons they learned, which will inspire hope long after the coronavirus is tamed.
ZOOMING INTO ONLINE TEACHING
It was a case study in being the change you want to see as Cal Lutheran’s five-person Digital Learning staff guided faculty from in-person to virtual instruction when the pandemic shut down the campus.
With an IT background, Digital Learning Director Mirwais Azizi had trained to plan for emergencies and, from what he was hearing, coronavirus packed potential for disruption.
“We saw this massive train coming our way,” said Azizi, who was named to his post in 2016 and also teaches organizational change at the university.
On March 7, Azizi arrived at work brimming with energy, his staff recalled. He told them to prepare workshops to train faculty on technology tools like Zoom and Blackboard. He estimated they had four weeks before the shift would be inevitable. As it turned out, it was nine days.
In that period, they trained 150 full-time and adjunct faculty members with daily sessions – morning, noon and night. Before the pandemic, the Digital Learning team’s classes would at tract five participants. That number jumped to 15 in the ramp-up to shut down and, even then, the department’s staff would get urgent “Can you fit me in?” emails.
The team condensed what normally would be a month of sessions into one 45-minute class, said Kaitlin Hodgdon, lecture capture specialist.
The skill levels of these teachers-turned-students ranged from seasoned online instructor to technology tenderfoot, and the class subject matter spanned mathematics to music production and sculpting to science lab. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘How can we work with a teacher teaching dance online? Or a speech class?'” Azizi said.
The staff knew they would have to provide continuing support so the faculty did not feel abandoned. “You come into work and your email has blown up, you have a ton of voicemails and three people standing at your door. And you know this was not going to slow down,” said Denise Kaye, an instructional designer. “Our emergency staff meetings would be interrupted by emergencies,” she said with a chuckle.
Kaye maintained an even keel by telling herself two things: 1. Instructors with anxiety and trepidation needed patience and empathy. 2. She had to focus on one person at a time.
How did they get through this technological heavy lift? The human touch, they say.
The takeaway for everyone is to be flexible in times of crisis.
Azizi finds it a hopeful sign most recent trainings focus less on technology and more on refining online teaching techniques.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO MOVE ONE
After California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home mandate March 19, Housing Operations Director Caitlin Hodges and her 10 Residence Life colleagues had to move 1,400 students from Cal Lutheran dorms in 12 days. Social-distancing requirements complicated already daunting logistics.
For weeks prior to the shut down, Residence Life staff ran scenarios. At first, it seemed unlikely campus would close, but the situation was in flux. “It felt like new information was coming every day, then every hour,” Hodges said. As COVID-19 cases climbed in California – even before the governor’s order – staff decided students would need to vacate residence halls by March 31.
Hodges, who came to Cal Lutheran six years ago, said the lockdown order demanded urgency. While most students were able to pack their belongings and find transportation in a matter of hours or a few days, others needed more time to locate storage or figure out travel. They were told they could stay until March 31.
Others had what Hodges describes as invisible barriers: no internet in their homes to take virtual classes or no quiet space for study in their households. Others confided they had monetary or very private obstacles to returning home.
The university provided nutritional, financial, emotional and medical support as needed, Hodges said.
In addition, some students had not yet returned from spring break when campus closed and their belongings remained in their rooms. The logistics of physically distancing 300 students while they retrieved their possessions required precision.
By March 31, 60 students were being housed through the end of the spring semester. Forty remain through the summer session.
Hodges said she believes students and staff have been tested by a force beyond their control and have shown resilience.
“Hopefully we can build our future whether socially distanced or a ‘normal’ future that is more equitable and considerate of the hidden challenges some students face,” she said.
CAL LUTHERAN AIRLIFT 2020
In mid-March, the nearly four dozen students enrolled in Cal Lutheran’s study-away program found themselves an ocean or continent from home as a cascading crisis spread across the globe, with airlines canceling flights and nations closing borders.
Feb. 1: Six weeks prior to what would be Cal Lutheran’s version of an airlift – with 9,829 COVID-19 cases globally – the university’s Office of Education Abroad staff monitored recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and the U.S. State Department several times a day, said Brett Chin, the program’s interim director.
A month later – with cases exploding to 85,403 globally – Italian officials shut down universities and ordered foreign students to leave the country. The five CLU students in Italy were notified to book a flight home. Although financial assistance was offered, some students wanted to stay. This had been the dream of their lifetimes.
March Madness global-style began a week later.
- March 7: U.S. officials raise the travel warning for Japan to Level 3. Cal Lutheran carries insurance on students traveling internationally with approved programs. With few exceptions, that policy does not cover travel to countries with a warning status above 2. Without assurance they could complete their programs virtually from the United States, students resisted leaving.
- March 11: President Trump bans all travel to and from Europe.
- March 12: Cal Lutheran notifies students studying abroad to come home.
- March 19: In an unprecedented move, the U.S. State Department issues a Level 4 advisory for all international travel.
The lights burn into the night at the Education Abroad office. Staff members email, call and text via the GroupMe app to check students’ progress on their homeward journeys. Airlines vary widely on the cost of changing reservations. Some students encounter airports shutting down. Some have four layovers. Others are flying home into COVID-19 hot spots, like Seattle.
- March 24: All but two students are safely home. Those who refuse to return sign waivers, said Chin, pointing out they are adults.
Kristina McGee’s two-day odyssey from Aberdeen, Scotland, to Los Angeles followed a roller coaster of emotions. The junior marketing and communication major said President Trump’s travel ban announcement set off a panic among her fellow U.S. students at the University of Aberdeen when it failed to note holders of U.S. pass- ports would be allowed back into the country.
The next day Cal Lutheran’s study-abroad staff notified McGee she could enter the United States but advised her to return as soon as possible.
The San Diego resident was lucky, she said. Cal Lutheran’s travel agent found an affordable British Airways flight. When she left Aberdeen on March 1 6, the city had a single COVID-19 case. By the time she boarded her plane out of London, most passengers wore masks and gloves.
And the America she left was changed. Customs officials at LAX sported face shields and gloves as they took her temperature and questioned if she had been in high-risk areas. Although she had visited hot spots – Budapest and Amsterdam – authorities let her through.
All international programs eventually moved the majority of classes online and the Registrar’s Office worked with the displaced students to make sure they received Cal Lutheran credit. To Chin’s knowledge, no student contracted COVID-19.
What business gurus tell us about crisis is true, Chin said. The future belongs to those with a tolerance for ambiguity. These students, he said, were scared and nervous but they did it. In future job interviews, they can tell these stories of resiliency set on a global stage as events transpired at break- neck speed.
“This is how you get entrepreneurs,” Chin said.